A belated and timely reassessment of John Major’s premiership from Peter Oborne at the Daily Telegraph.
His administration has enjoyed a terrible reputation and remains associated with sleaze, incompetence, drift and weakness. But as time has passed this verdict has started to look unfair. History may yet be much kinder to John Major than many would have thought.
Yet a closer look at the facts (those oh so inconvenient nuggets of truth that undermine the seductive charm of wishful thinking) Major’s government had a good record of solid achievement in Northern Ireland, public service reform, education and pensions. The benefits of the Maastricht monetary union opt out, though widely derided at the time by the great and the good from the left have kept us out of the current Euro quicksand. Above all, after the (admittedly self inflicted) trauma of Black Wednesday in 1992, within five years the economy had been turned around.
By 1997 employment was rising, growth stable, and the deficit was well under control, meaning that Gordon Brown as chancellor inherited the most benign economic scenario for any British government of the last century. The situation was so fundamentally strong that it took three successive Labour administrations to wreck it.
But at the time, as Oborne guiltily admits, he and his fellow journalists waged an unrelenting campaign of contemptuous denigration against Major.
Yet during the later stages of his premiership, Major was treated with almost universal, vicious derision. Calumny after calumny was heaped upon him, and though this campaign of laceration was led in Parliament by Blair’s brilliant New Labour opposition, the newspapers were all too happy to join in.
His humble origins were viciously mocked. His ordinary, untheatrical bank manager demeanour was constantly compared unfavourably with the flashy showmanship of Tony Blair’s car salesman – and the charge was orchestrated, not so much from the natural enemies of the right at the BBC and Guardian but from that so called bastion of conservatism at the Daily Telegraph. Day in, day out vicious barbs were penned by the likes of Simon Heffer and Boris Johnson (yes, that Boris) deliberately aimed at undermining Major and preparing the way for their chosen messiah….Michael Portillo….
Don’t laugh – the saviour of the Tories was going to be a shallow, etch-a-sketch glamour boy, a trimmer who played to whichever gallery was making the most noise. Somehow (only the gods know why) the Telegraph fell madly in love with Portillo and so successfully tarnished Major’s reputation that in 1997 Labour swept back to power with a massive majority of parliamentary seats. Hundreds of Tories failed to win their constituencies – including (to the laughter of the gods) Portillo, the Telegraph’s “man of destiny”
By the way, this month, twenty years ago, saw the last Tory victory in a General Election. Against the prophesies of the pundits and the prognostications of the pollsters John Major was returned to Downing Street.
Right up to the BBC exit polls, it was assumed that Neil Kinnock’s Labour would win. But John Major, always underestimated by a sneering metropolitan media class, triumphed against the odds.
He won more votes – 14 million – than any other British prime minister has ever done. In popular terms, the margin of victory was immense. No less than 42 per cent of the voters came out for Major, 34 per cent for Kinnock. But the bias of the British electoral system hit the Conservatives hard.
Had Labour enjoyed that 8 per cent lead in the popular vote, it would have secured a parliamentary majority of more than 100. Unlucky Major ended up with a majority of just 21, which was whittled away over the coming years until his government ended in ignominy and defeat
That’s right – the disdained John Major managed to achieve something that has eluded David Cameron (AKA Michael Portillo Mk II)….a decisive Tory victory in terms of popular voter support…
…and, partially thanks to the Daily Telegraph it might possibly be the last…..