You may remember the day she went, people opening office doors and shouting "She's gone! She's finally gone," as though some old and unsightly shipwreck had slipped at last from the reef. You may also remember wondering who John Major was, what kind of man, with what beliefs. Probably you endowed him with a single and entirely negative virtue. He was not Mrs Thatcher. Probably you are still wondering what impelled the Tory party - no fools when it comes to collective survival - to choose him as the lady's successor. And the answer, dredged from those five long years ago, is once again his negative appeal. He was not Douglas Hurd (too unfashionably posh) and, in particular, he was not Michael Heseltine (too dangerous, too hated by the Tory Right, too disloyal to Thatcher - and, more important, too disloyal too early; acceptable acts of disloyalty being a matter of timing, cf John Major's toothache preventing active support for his leader in the first ballot.)
He was liked then, or at least many people were prepared to like him. He is not liked now. Much of this can be explained by his government's record, and by things well outside his control. Britain - and not just Britain - sees politics and politicians in an increasingly sceptical light. No politician can expect to be as popular after five years in office as he or she was at the beginning. Indeed - as Mrs Thatcher would say - it isn't a leader's job to be popular. Major's unpopularity, however, is of a different order to his predecessor's because it is laced, not with respectful hatred, but with indifference and contempt. This would matter to any politician, but it must matter particularly to Major. He is there to be liked, and liked above his party; likeableness is the quality he has chosen to promote.
It is also the quality, or rather the technique, that has promoted him. Of all the books and journalism written about John Major over the past five years, the most enlightening single piece, I think, was written by Matthew Parris for the Spectator and reprinted by the Independent on Sunday in March 1993. Parris, who spent seven years as a Tory MP, joined the Commons, like Major, after the 1979 election that brought Thatcher to power. His piece was not research - how many O-levels, whither the garden gnomes - but psychological speculation. Major's childhood, Parris wrote, offered him three adult roads to choose from: defeat, rebellion or collaboration. Major chose the last: "a careful... strategy to build security and win friendship in a world which might naturally have rejected the likes of him... Practically speaking, he has needed friends." A need to be liked, therefore a need to be likeable. But, as Parris says, this is not a strategy but a screen. "A political past spent avoiding conflicts leaves you all at sea when the inevitable conflict comes. Fighting in the playground gives us useful maps of our strengths and weaknesses, and those of others... It teaches us how to advance and how to retreat. It teaches us how, and how hard, and where, and where not, to press others - and when to hang back. It teaches us how to give in, how to kiss and make up. I am not sure Major possesses these maps." We shouldn't take from this the common complaint of the Tory press that John Major is a "weak" man, but rather that he is a crafty and extremely stubborn one. Stubborn in his friendships, until the point comes when even he sees that the game is up and one of his ministers has to go. Stubborn in some of his most unpopular policies because, fearing to be seen as "weak", he wants to display the muscles of the Michelin man.
What does he believe in, outside of low inflation and keeping himself and his party in office? Some specifics have rightly come to haunt him: traffic-cone hotlines, the need for more lavatories on the M11. The generality, his "vision thing", is more elusive: Britain at the heart of Europe (or maybe not), Britain as a "classless society" and "a nation at ease with itself" (but also with the manners of 1955). His longings may be typical of a certain kind of Englishman - cricket at the Oval, Orwell's lines about mist, warm beer and bicycles - but they are also absurd in that the neo-Thatcherite actions of his government make that time of social cohesion and placidity less retrievable.
Perhaps his ambition was to be a likeable man in charge of a likeable country; if so, it has all gone terribly wrong on both counts. It may not be a tragedy for him. There will be honours and eventual directorships and, with luck, peace in Northern Ireland and consequent public gratitude. But the past five years have certainly been a tragedy for too many of the rest of us. He and his arrogant party have been in power far too long. For the sake of our residual belief in the political process, if for nothing else, their fingers should soon be prised from the wreckage on the reef. WELL, WHO would have thought it? The famous remark with which John Major opened his first Cabinet as Prime Minister on Thursday, 29 November 1990, still resonates five years later. Two nights earlier, when Major's victory in the leadership election had j ust been announced, a distinguished journalist had remarked to a member of the campaign team that the Major Prime Ministership would be an "interlude". Some interlude. He has since won a general election he was expected to lose and survived a self-impose d leadership contest many thought might be his undoing. A Tory party more fractious than it was over Suez or Rhodesia, and scarcely less so than it was over pre-war appeasement, has failed to unseat him, despite his having the smallest government majorit y for 16 years. And although no government has enjoyed, since polling began, as low a rating in public opinion for so long, the probability must be that he will lead it into the next election. Well, who would have thought it? He didn't, after all, come to office with a Big Idea. An official who worked closely with Major before he became Prime Minister unkindly cites a remark of Victor Hugo's to the effect that all Napoleon III's courtiers believed him to have some grand strat egy he was keeping hidden, only to discover that he had nothing of the sort. Even the "classless society", the famous - and after five years, largely unrealised - aspiration dreamt up for him by Andrew Tyrie, his Treasury special adviser, on the first da y of the leadership contest, appealed to Major largely as a stratagem for putting his patrician rival Douglas Hurd on the defensive. It succeeded brilliantly; Hurd was obliged to spout some uncomfortable nonsense at his own opening press conference about having only gone to Eton because he got a scholarship, only much later recovering enough to say that he thought he was running for the leadership of the Tory party and not "some demented Marxist outfit". (As Kenneth Clarke would put it to a friend: "Dou glas should have said: 'Of course I'm a toff. But I'm a toff with a social conscience.' Which he is.") Nor was John Major particularly well-prepared. There's an unconsciously revealing passage in Too Close to Call, the book written by Sarah Hogg, who was head of Major's Policy Unit, and by Jonathan Hill, his former political secretary; in it, they describ e how, after Major arrived at No 10, senior officials throughout Whitehall, accustomed in Thatcher to a Prime Minister who had strong and instant views about everything, bombarded Downing Street with minutes requesting a "steer" on how the new man saw do zens of particular policy issues. Major displayed, say Hogg and Hill, "highly rational exasperation" at this. More often than not, he would scribble "Please Refer" in the top right-hand corner of the note "which meant his advisers would be in for a detai led cross examination before he would go nap". It was not, to be sure, that Major was frightened of the detail; mastery of a brief, along with a computer-like recollection for figures, faces, names and salient details, has never been a problem for him. ( David Owen, meeting him regularly in the winter of 1992-3 to talk about the escalating conflict in Bosnia, was awestruck by his ability to hold the complex and shifting map of the former Yugoslavia in his head.) Instead, the "Please Refer" mantra seems t o have stemmed from a lack of firm convictions in relation to many of the subjects he was being pestered about. The late Judith Chaplin, whom Hill succeeded as Political Secretary, is quoted in Penny Junor's Enigma as referring to Henry Kissinger's remar k that "a period in high office consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it." Suggesting that Major came into office several years earlier than he would ideally have wanted, Chaplin went on to say that "If you don't have an overall vision... it' s very easy to be taken over by officials who already have a clear idea of what they want. John's very bright but I don't think he had that capital." So how did a man who didn't have "that capital" last so long? It is tempting, if only fleetingly, to put it down to his sheer "niceness"; the well-attested private humanity, coupled with a public decency, which - at least in the good times - opinion pol ls have shown to be an electoral asset. But, as a diagnosis, that fails every test. While that "niceness" meant that he came into office with scarcely an enemy in the Tory party, it has not prevented him acquiring all too many since. There must be someth ing more here; a resilience, a will to win, and a capacity to take risks to ensure his own - and perhaps his party's - survival. Just after taking office he told an incredulous group of guests at a Downing Street party: "I'm a gambler; just watch me." Fi ve years later, he spectacularly vindicated this self-assessment by announcing that he was resigning the leadership of the Conservative Party and inviting all-comers to challenge him for the leadership. In any case, his genuine decency should not bemisu nderstood. He may have an almost perfect touch with small or informal groups - at the British consulate in Alexandria in 1993, at a reception the night before the El Alamein celebrations, he made an impromptu little speech of the sort he can never quite replicate on big public platforms: hitting exactly the right note, humble without being creepy, and bringing a tear to the eyes of the most hardened Second World War veterans; the "God Bless" ending to his famous Gulf War television broadcast in 1991 may have been exactly and movingly judged; and his loyalty to friends like Jeffrey Archer or David Mellor may go far beyond the call of normal statecraft. On the other hand, as one ex-colleague has said, "He's very good with people. He has a great and genui ne fund of sympathy. But he hasn't allowed it to get in his way." Norman Fowler confirms this; he told Kenneth Clarke that, when Major came to the DHSS as a junior minister, he was the most ambitious politician Fowler had ever met. And there was theway in which Major spectacularly saw off John Moore, at the time - 1987-8 - his main rival both for Margaret Thatcher's affections and, it then seemed, for the future leadership of the party. He did it by a simple expedient; as Chief Secretary to the Treasur y, he accepted a public spending bid from Moore, the Secretary of State for Social Services, which he knew was derisorily too low. Humiliatingly, Moore had to return for more money. That steely ambition may also be the key to understanding the ideological ambiguity, the mystery of whether he is, in Tory terms, left or right. Kenneth Clarke told an acquaintance, a few weeks after Major won the leadership election, that the partyhad been mistaken in thinking they had anointed Margaret Thatcher's natural successor. Instead, he declared, "John was the most left-wing of the three candidates." This was not unreasonable. Major was anti-hanging, still one of the tests of an aspiring polit ician's location within the party's political spectrum when he came into Parliament in 1979; he had joined the Blue Chip group of young MPs who, in the early 1980s, acted as the social conscience of the party; his anti-racism, evident as a real convictio n since his days as a Lambeth councillor, had attracted the admiring attention of Ken Livingstone. On the other hand, with only a handful of exceptions, the right wing of the party turned out for John Major in November 1990. Reflecting then on the solid support for Major among the Thatcherites, Andrew Tyrie remarked that the question was "whether John hijacked the right wing, or whether the right wing hijacked John Major." Kenneth Clarke, himself identifiably on the left of the party, later told Penny Junor, in terms pregnant with sub-text: "One of his skills is that everybody thinks he agrees with them. It's not because he says one thing to one person and another to another... It's one of his most successful qualities- ev eryone is confident and convinced they have John as an ally." Nowhere, perhaps, has this ambiguity been more marked than on Europe. Appealing to members of the Thatcherite 92 Group during the 1990 leadership contest, he is reliably reported to have suggested that Britain might one day have to contemplate leaving th e EU if it moved irresistibly toward greater integration. And yet the late Stephen Milligan vividly recalled something very different from the long hot summer of 1993 when the Maastricht bill was being fought every inch of the way by the Euro-sceptic win g; he remembered how John Major had arrived at a dinner of the Positive European group of MPs - the hard line pro-Europeans in the party - had looked round the gathering with undisguised satisfaction, and had confided in Milligan: "This is my Tory party. " And it may also be that, at the Maastricht summit itself, Mr Major might not have been quite as resistant to the Social Chapter had Michael Howard not, obliquely but unmistakeably, threatened to resign if the Prime Minister signed up to it. At least on e member of the British delegation recalls that when Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister, proposed a greatly watered down version as a compromise, the British Prime Minister put his hands together in the praying position, finger tips to his nose,and only after deep thought made the one word reply: "No". Major's ability to travel light, ideologically speaking, may be a key to his survival. But it brings with it the commonplace criticism that he is more a party Whip than a leader; that, in Tony Blair's wounding gibe, "I lead my party. He follows his." And it has looked at times as though, instead of restoring his "authority", even his victory over John Redwood in 1995 has failed to cure him of his Whip's habits - even if it reinforced his one nation conservatism. This "anti-leader" - or non-leader - style is outwardly reinforced by his disdain for all the swankiest bits of being Prime Minister. For a brief two-hour respite from speech-writing and gladhanding during the party conference this year, he took hisclos est lieutenants out to The Cottage - an unprepossessing fish and chip shop on the outskirts of Blackpool. During a critical stage of the Maastricht negotiations he insisted on sending out for Big Macs and then fretted that the hotel room should not be le ft to the chambermaids in its untidy state. And it took him a long time - and Norma even longer - to get used to Chequers, "with all those gloomy Wrens", as one former Cabinet colleague puts it. (They now quite like it, and the Prime Minister talks fon dly of the opera evenings staged there.) Major's style - the absolute antithesis of, say, President Mitterrand's - is as impressive as it is rare. And, at least up until his successful leadership gamble in June, it is difficult to believe that a more authoritarian form of leadership would have been any more successful. There are genuine doubts about the manageability of the present Tory party. Obscure MPs who had tasted real power for the first time by unseating Margaret Thatcher suddenly found themselves in a new limelight. Every television s tation in the country seemed to want to solicit their views on every question of the day. And the more critical they were of their own leader, the more they got asked back. More ominously, the Euro-sceptic impossibilists enjoyed confrontation. Whichis w hy, famously, Major confided in ITN's political editor, Michael Brunson, that he could not afford three more of the "bastards" gunning for him from the backbenches. Would Major have survived at all if he had not tacked? And as with his own interests within the party, so with the party's wider interests within the country. For all the lack of ideology ascribed to Major, it was said more than once on his behalf during those nerve-racking days in the late summer of 1992, w hen he was frantically defending the pound and Britain's membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, that his commitment to low inflation, at least, was a consuming personal ideal. There was certainly a passion in the way he described how savings could be eroded by inflation; it bore unmistakeable echoes of that period after his father's first heart attack in 1954, when the Major garden gnome business collapsed and the young schoolboy, forced now to wear a second-hand blazer, with its embarrassi ngly odd buttons, had to cope with the downward move from Worcester Park to Brixton and learned, as he put it in his 1995 party conference speech, what "it was not to have the money coming in every Thursday". Nevertheless, there were those in the Treasur y who privately questioned the depth of Major's belief in the fight against inflation, insisting that the decision he had taken as Chancellor to join the ERM in 1990 - against Prime Minister Thatcher's better judgement - had not been a worked-out econom ic policy at all. Instead, so the argument went, the decision had been entirely political in the narrowest sense; at a time when Spitting Image was regularly depicting the Chancellor as Mrs Thatcher's poodle, he merely needed to show that he was hisown man. Moreover, had he not a year later deliberately allowed spending to increase by pounds 5.6bn - with another pounds 3bn taken from the reserves? And, in the same year, had not William Waldegrave, then Secretary of State for Health, made a panicky app eal for an extra pounds 1.65bn directly to Major over the head of his Treasury Chief Secretary and been entirely successful? This was scarcely the action of a Prime Minister determined to be a prudent guardian of the public purse. But the point is that e ven his critics had to allow that it was electorally canny. If morale had imploded in the NHS in the winter before the general election, as Waldegrave had warned it would without the extra money, the 1992 election would have been even more of an uphill s truggle than it proved. John Major, in short, knows something about winning elections. It may be unkind to say, as one formerly close colleague puts it now, that "John Major is better at electioneering than governing." After all, the Cabinet's self-extrication from the poll tax , within five months of Major's assuming office, was described with forgivable hyperbole by Chris Patten as "the most brilliant piece of government I ever saw". But Major certainly understands electioneering, having won all three of the most important el ections he has taken part in. The legend that he was unshakeably, and sometimes uniquely among senior Tories, optimistic about the outcome of the general election remains surprisingly durable. Jeffrey Archer recalls that, on the Tuesday night 10 days bef ore polling day, he and Sir Norman Fowler had the painful task of sharing with Major the results of an ICM poll for the Guardian that showed Labour seven points ahead. When Sir Norman haltingly gave him the figures, Major scarcely looked up from thedraf t of his speech on which he was working: "Well, it will make victory all the sweeter," he replied. Major had, moreover, done a great deal more to prepare for the election than merely loosen the reins on public spending; with Chris Patten, he had taken th e critical strategic decision to accept Maurice Saatchi's advice to fight an essentially negative campaign against Labour's economic policy - to make the election, in Michael Heseltine's memorable phrase, about "three issues: tax, tax and tax". And the i ntuition that led him, after being mobbed by the Socialist Workers' Party in Bolton, to take to his soapbox (and, more importantly, to make the preservation of the British constitution in general and the union of Scotland and England in particular athem e of the last few days of the campaign) was handsomely vindicated. What's more, something has happened to Major since the summer leadership contest. From time to time, he has discreet chats at Downing Street with some of the party's shrewder elder statesmen: Lord Whitelaw and, perhaps more intriguingly, Lord Parkinson, the only Tory since 1979 to have made a success of the party chairmanship. In the early part of the year, their task was, at least partly, to cheer up a Prime Minister over-sensitive to a bad press and sometimes cast in deep depression. (Parkinson once f ound him slumped almost inconsolably over an Evening Standard announcing that Lord Wakeham had joined the gravy train by becoming a director of NM Rothschild.) Since then, they have detected in Major a new sense of self-belief. And as one intimate puts it: "Norma is very much on side now in a way she wasn't always. She is not going to see her man humiliated." Against that, Tony Blair is not Neil Kinnock. Major faces a vastly more daunting task than he did in 1992; but, despite all the portents, henow apparently believes that he has a fighting chance of winning in 1997. There is one other issue, which cuts as no other across the widespread contention that while John Major may win elections, he has done nothing with his victories. In their book, Hogg and Hill recall that, before that Cabinet on 29 November 1990, thePrim e Minister had scrawled on a sheet of paper the two words Northern Ireland. He never mentioned it at that Cabinet, and other preoccupations forced the Irish question down the agenda until after the 1992 election and the first messages from Martin McGuine ss to British intelligence that Sinn Fein/IRA were prepared to talk. It is in many ways the least party political of the issues he has dealt with, but his dogged search for a lasting solution has brought him in sight of a glittering prize. It may yet elu de him, though two years of peace would in itself be a remarkable achievement. A lasting political settlement for Northern Ireland may not be a necessary or a sufficient condition for a second general election victory. But win or not, it would guarantee him, at last, a place in history. !
SIGNS OF THE TIMES BY 1990, I'd practically given up writing and broadcasting, and only did my real day job, management consultancy. But I still had a residual media task that derived from my Eighties life; acting as a soundbite/one-liner merchant for TV researchers who wa nted something quick over the telephone. Usually their questions concerned "cultural" matters, and I was often asked about the Nineties. What was the spirit of the age? What was the style of it? What trends could I see emerging? This line of inquiry was, of course, itself a product of the Eight ies, and I found all these questions, which assumed the Eighties were over, almost impossible to answer. I couldn't see any Nineties to speak of. A few straws, much noted in W11, hardly seemed enough to be going on with. There was, for instance, Rifat Oz bek's "New Age White Look". This was seen as deeply significant by people desperate for A Sign. They felt that it meant a new simplicity, a new spirituality. I thought it meant a new dress. Then there were the alleged sightings - mostly in advertising - of New Men, people who'd given up the Greed is Good life to cuddle babies. These vaguely Californian phenomena didn't describe the decade for me. My usual answer was to say frankly that I couldn't see many positive Nineties trends. The main trend was a huge default, a great lack of confident Eightiesness. So: no feelgood factor; no banks throwing money at companies and individuals; no house price rises; no salary spirals for people with tradeable skills. This series of defaults was clear in the early Nineties because they coincided with a long recession which hit the real world - as opposed to the Stock Exchange - at the turn of the decade. Above all, there was no charismatic leader to symbolise onwards and upwards, batting for Britain, or any of that. We exchanged Margaret Thatcher for John Major who, for most of the population, represented an empty space. This had little to do with Mr Maj or's alleged greyness, but everything to do with his being a complete unknown. Unless you were a Westminster insider, you'd have known nothing about Mr Major, or what he stood for, in November 1990. But even the least politically sophisticated observer knew why he had been elected: for not being Michael Heseltine, the regicide, or Douglas Hurd, the Nob. The Tories voted for the large empty space and Time For Healing. The sense of loss persisted; people hardly dared to breathe, much less admit that they'd like the Eighties back. The other thing I said was that the key characteristics of a new decade need time to reach critical mass, which means that the defining years - the ones which characterise the mood - tend to start mid-decade. And now we are at mid-decade, and some real N ineties trends have been developing - many from Eighties roots. Information Technology changing the world of work forever; the real crisis of capitalism following the fall of communism; the melting of civic certainties and the institutions that symbolise d them. Now I detect a preparedness to accept a grown-up 20th-century structure - a written constitution and the rest. The realities of globalism are obvious, too. It means universal and unending competition on the macro level; on the micro, it means losing your back-office job to someone in Bombay. The anxiety this has created among a swathe of big businesses is evident in the "Culture Change" programmes that managers are being put through to prepare them for the modern world. Why didn't we notice this in 1990? It was gradual, in what the management thinker Charles Handy calls the boiled-frog mode (boil a frog fromcol d, and it won't leap out of the saucepan) - all rather big, abstract, Discuss notions. But there's nothing abstract about Tony Blair and, for better or worse, once he made it clear what he was about, the Nineties had begun.
! 'Peter York's 80s', a six-part series, begins on BBC2 on 6 January 1996; 'Peter York's 80s' is published by BBC books on 4 JanuaryReuse content