Overrated: John Major

The former Prime Minister’s recent attack on his own party was nothing more than an elder statesman’s pre-emptive strike

Overrated UK Politics

If a Prime Minister lives long enough, he can expect to don the mantle of elder statesman. Statesmanship, itself, is not an obvious qualification, notably in the case of Sir John Major. Major is nobody’s fool. He is a guileful, seasoned player of the game. But both his record and his character make him a bad political guide.

In his recent speech to the parliamentary press gallery Sir John let rip on energy bills, Europe, Iain Duncan Smith, and poverty. The tone attracted immediate attention. It was sharper, fiercer, less considered and infinitely more interesting than usual. (He has since denounced public school elitism, which has not made life easier for David Cameron, and was not meant to.)

It all seems out of character. John Major is one of the bores of British politics. His views were, and are, derivative and incoherent. He was thus “the greatest Eurosceptic of them all”, yet he wanted to have Britain “at the heart of Europe”. The notion that these couldn’t both be true simply did not occur to him. That incapacity for sustained analysis led him into trouble. 

His strengths were as a party micro-manager. He was good at getting his way in small groups and on small matters. But as party leader and Prime Minister he floundered. His default mechanism was to split the difference, and then to strong-arm dissenters. But on an issue of principle, like the Maastricht Treaty, and one where the dissenters were determined and numerous, the strategy smashed the party.  

Judgment of Major cannot be disentangled from judgment of Maastricht. If it didn’t matter much what the treaty said, because Major (or more exactly Norman Lamont) had got an opt-out for Britain from the euro, then the rebels were plainly wrong, and he is vindicated. But Maastricht did matter. It set Europe on course towards political and economic union, with Britain still in tow. Each of the current problems in Europe, and every one of David Cameron’s current headaches as he tries to renegotiate, stems from the Maastricht Treaty framework.

John Major’s defenders extol his surprise success in the 1992 election. It was certainly unpredicted by the BBC, but not unpredictable. Victory was the combined effect of the Thatcher government’s record (without her grating presence) and of the horrible prospect of a mouthy, incompetent Neil Kinnock in charge. 

But from then on it was all downhill. Only a reckless political gambler, or a first-rate political chump, would have elevated staying within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism into a talisman. But John Major did it. “Black Wednesday” and sterling’s ejection from the ERM, by allowing interest rates and the pound to fall, permitted economic recovery. But the shambles destroyed the government’s standing. Moreover, Major could not explain why the country was now prospering, because it made him look so foolish. He then made the outcome worse. He became chief belligerent in a factional Tory war, which he finally lost. 

And, of course, in 1997 he also lost the election. The defeat was cataclysmic-the worst Conservative result since 1906, with the party’s lowest vote share since the coming of mass democracy. Major refused, however, to take the blame, which he sought to transfer to others. He was prudent enough to keep his head down. Later, when he resurfaced, it was as an outrider for No 10.  

No more, it seems. Major has given up on his old protégé Cameron. He can do the arithmetic. He can read the electoral runes. He has seen the political future, and it isn’t Tory. 

This alone can explain the mix of carelessness and cunning that informs his utterances. The proposal to levy a windfall tax on the energy giants and recycle the money to hard-up households is nonsense. Windfall taxes are damaging because they are retrospective, undermine business confidence, and penalise both shareholders and ultimately consumers. But this shameless excursus into populism was in tune with the rest. Major complained about “pensioner poverty”, even though pensioners have, by and large, been shielded from recession. He backed welfare reform, but suggested that Iain Duncan Smith was too stupid to get it right. Finally, and extraordinarily, Major claimed that “the threat of a federal Europe is as dead as Jacob Marley”. The assertion is transparently false. A centralised single government of Europe is precisely what Chancellor Merkel is planning in response to the eurozone crisis. 

But should Cameron be surprised? John Major’s government has, in truth, little to teach the modern Conservative Party. The only lessons are cautionary tales against misreading events and mismanaging supporters. And Sir John will not soon be teaching those. The real significance of Major’s intervention should give his party the shakes. He has deduced that defeat is coming and   decided to apportion blame beforehand. Matthew Parris, in The Times, describes John Major as “a prophet”. Moses he is not — Cassandra maybe. Major now sees more Tory Wars. These were his opening shots, and he again has Tory Bastards in his sights.