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A new biography of the man who rose to the top for 'his absence of any firm position, rather then any positive virtue'
"I Love My Party in the country," said John Major after his defeat, "but I do not love my parliamentary party." It makes a fitting epitaph. Yet the most remarkable thing about the former premier was not his love- hate relationship with the Tories. It was his strange, almost sado-masochistic, relationship with the British public, and ours with him. No politician ever put up with more verbal flagellation. Yet, even as we applied the scourge, we could not quite give up liking him.

The sense of Major as an attractive man promoted several rungs above his station is well conveyed by Anthony Seldon's resourceful and highly readable John Major: A Political Life. If Mr Major was not the best premier of the century, he notches up at least one first: he is the most painstakingly biographised. The author's portrait is built from some 500 interviews, including several with the subject himself.

Was there more to Major than meets the eye? If there is an enigma it is this: most political eager-beavers of his type never get beyond the local council. Was it just luck - or was it exceptional drive and finesse, that got him to the top? And was it some particular flaw of character, that finally destroyed him? Seldon offers intriguing insights.

The picture emerges of a man spurred on, if not by his lowly background, then by his own early failure to use the opportunity to escape it. British prime ministers-to-be generally fall into one of two categories: high- achieving swots, or low-achieving dunces and layabouts. John Major belonged in the second group. The fourth grammar-school product to reach No 10, he differed sharply from the other three. While Wilson, Heath and Thatcher shone in their teens, Major left school immediately after getting modest O levels, and drifted into clerical work. "The reason I didn't work at school was alienation from the school," the ex-premier claims. It may also have been because his family, beset by illness and economic hardship, didn't care whether he worked or not. In place of social aspiration, there was downward mobility, and a frightened clinging to the margins of the lower-lower middle class.

The catalysts that turned adolescent listlessness into demon activity were the Young Conservatives and sex. The first was pretty accidental. Seldon suggests that Major chose the Tories because he linked Labour collectivism to the regimentation of his grammar school, but that feels post hoc; a likelier explanation is that Conservative social life offered a rootless teenager congenial company. Sex is more interesting. At the age of 20, Major began a torrid affair with the "terribly nice-looking, nice smile, very intelligent and charming" Jean Kierans, a 33-year-old divorced friend of his mother, who naturally became a little alarmed. The relationship lasted seven years, until Major dumped Mrs Kierans for Norma. According to Seldon, "their intense physical relationship helped Major grow in self-confidence and self-esteem". Intense? Physical? The affair began in 1963, dawn of permissiveness - but all the same. It is not exactly the John Major we are used to, and we should have liked to know more. The Kierans episode coincided with the gradual metamorphosis of an "obsessive political anorak", whose idea of an evening's entertainment was to play records of senior politicians' speeches, into a presentable public figure.

Seldon's account of the nine years in Parliament between 1979 and 1990 - as the unknown Major stole catlike up the Tory hierarchy - provides the most illuminating part of this book. There were several ingredients. One was tactile. "He was very good at gripping your arm," says one associate, who saw him as a kind of Princess Diana of the backbenches, "gently touching you, and just being generally friendly in that open kind of way that people like". As important, he developed a reputation for reading the Prime Minister's mind and relating to her. Getting on with older women was his forte: once again, the Mrs Kierans episode was useful training. By 1986, the premier spoke of him as a minister of "exceptional talent". The next year he entered the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

If his grip of policy was shaky, his political skill made up for it. It is interesting to observe the development of the "subdued, rather secretive little boy" into the confident, even disarming, parliamentary and television performer. "I would put him at the top of the scale for someone who is privately nervous," says an ex-mandarin who observed him at this time, "but almost bottom of the scale for someone whose nervousness manifested itself in public".

He was also top of the scale for being untainted, uncontroversial, unthreatening, unlikely to cause envy. Was he as mild as he seemed - or was it partly a pose? The jokes about his greyness missed an ability (which some colleagues painfully lacked) to see the funny side. At the end of his first day as Foreign Secretary, he returned to the office after a long meeting with the Prime Minister, and loosened his tie. "I'm back and I can take the lead and collar off," he said.

When Nigel Lawson resigned, Major was moved (as one journalist put it) "from foreign lap dog to economic poodle", at the Treasury. What recommended him for this immensely important post was his absence of any firm position rather than any positive virtue. Lawson was an economic heavyweight: Major knew only what he had picked up as Chief Secretary. It showed. Scarcely ever, possibly never, has a Chancellor left less of a mark than John Major during his year at the Exchequer.

Against such a background, his election to the Tory leadership can be seen not so much as a stunning achievement as a symptom of the parlous state the Conservative Party had got itself into. In 1935, Beatrice Webb wrote that Clement Attlee became leader of his party because he was the most inoffensive and least disliked member of the front bench. Much the same was true of Major. What made him stand? It is here that we get a glint of steel. "That he wanted to become Prime Minister, and was one of the most ambitious men in the House of Commons," Seldon maintains, "there can be no doubt." When the Prime Minister asked him to nominate her for the second ballet, he hesitated for 15 seconds before saying yes - the most pregnant political silence since May 1940, when Lord Halifax told Chamberlain that as a peer he was unsuited to succeed to the premiership, and Winston Churchill pointedly declined to disagree.

But ambitious for what? In the hollow unanswerability of that question lies the tragedy of Mr Major's career. He had feelings. Though a "passionate and partisan Conservative" (whatever that meant), he hated discrimination of any kind. But the qualities that brought him the job also made him a disastrous leader.

The 1992 election result is the one victory Mr Major's detractors cannot take from him, especially as all the poll evidence indicates that, but for Thatcher's fall, the Tories would have lost. During the campaign, he kept his nerve. Yet after he won, he offered a prospectus that contained little except more privatisations, the vacuities of the Citizens' Charter, and a palpable inability to resolve his party's dispute over relations with the European Union.

Major's Waterloo came the same September. Black Wednesday changed more than the parity. It finished the Conservatives, possibly for a generation. The author defends Major as the victim of the conventional wisdom, which included Labour, over the ERM. Yet what became terrifyingly apparent on that expensive day was the failure of those principally concerned not only to act decisively, but to understand what was going on. As Prime Minister, Major was not to blame for his ignorance about technical economics. He was, however, culpable for appointing and retaining, in Norman Lamont, a Chancellor whose illiteracy was almost as great as his own.

There was no political recovery. The statistics of Major's declining Commons majority, presented in a useful chart at the back of the book, tell their own tale. Press, public, and much of the Tory Party formed an alliance against the Prime Minister. "Insulting the leader in public and private," wrote Hugo Young, "has entered the recognised protocols of Conservative political conduct." When Major visited India in 1993, Seldon tells us, his spin doctors ruled out a visit to the Taj Mahal. With the image of the Princess of Wales alone and the caption "Where's Charles?" still fresh in the public mind, it was thought prudent to give the monument a wide berth.

That Major managed to cling to power, despite his isolation, could be taken as evidence of political skill. It could also be taken as a defect in the British Constitution, which gives huge power to a single executive office, yet provides no mechanism - other than the procedures of the ruling party - for changing a helmsman who is manifestly out of touch with public feeling. As it was, virtually the whole 1992-7 Parliament was conducted as if the Major premiership was a terminally ill patient whose fate was never in doubt.

Arguably, a Prime Minister with a tiny majority, a fractious party and 70 mainly bitter ex-ministers on the backbenches could do very little. Equally arguably, he shouldn't have tried - a dignified exit would have salvaged some of his reputation, made possible a political after-life, and given his successor time for a run-in. Instead, as Seldon reminds us, Major struggled on through whip withdrawals and restorations, searching for a purpose neither he nor his Government any longer had. "Back to Basics" illustrated the weakness of his claim to any kind of authority. The document had nothing directly to do with sex or bribes. However, by seeking to make a selling point out of some moral principles, he inevitably created open season on Ministers who had been lax in their observance of others.

Yet Major remained adept at keeping his active opponents to a minority. In 1994, William Hill gave odds of 8-11 that he would be out of office before the election. The following year, he told his enemies to put up or shut up. The bold pre-emptive strike worked. According to Norma, he was as pleased by the result of the 1995 self-induced Tory leadership contest as by anything in his premiership, but not wholly pleased. "I don't know that he ever really is fully content," she is quoted as saying. The revelation is a doubly interesting one.

If Margaret Thatcher's reign was characterised by an increasingly careless zeal, Major's period of office was marked by the unhappy pursuit of self- preservation. Looking back at over his premiership, the balance sheet looks bleak. The author concludes that it was "not without its achievements" - so one would hope, over a seven-year stretch. In Northern Ireland, despite a forced dependence on Unionist votes in the Commons, his instinct for neutrality helped to start a peace process that may yet have lasting benefits: for that he deserves great credit. He was the first Tory Prime Minister "to believe in race and sex equality, and in progress towards homosexual equality". Perhaps he was in the wrong party. Certainly he showed himself humane, pragmatic, quick, direct, with a sharp wit and a sometimes startling ability to parry thrusts in Parliament.

But, as this record reveals, nothing ever mattered to him as much as the holding of his office and not relinquishing it. His politics were personal, and lonely. As Britain's third longest serving post-war premier, he will be remembered, in this limited sense, as a successful politician. Except by a tiny group of diehards, he will be remembered without rancour. But future historians will not find it hard to discover why, six months later, scarcely anybody in the United Kingdom regrets his departure.

'John Major: A Political Life' by Anthony Seldon is published by Weidenfeld at pounds 25

Ben Pimlott is Visiting Fellow at St Cross College, Oxford