Did we really once call him the “grey man?” Yesterday, by contrast, he was not inconsiderably kaleidoscopic. He said that, liberated by the burdens of office, “I can say what I think now”.
And he did. Press gallery lunches can be platitude central. Yesterday Sir John Major made the most effective speech most could remember at one of them and let’s face it, possibly of his own career. Oh yes!
And it wasn’t just the lethally gentle score-settling that kept us on the edge of our chairs. As on the “bastards”, as he once called three of his Eurosceptic rebels off air. “It was unforgiveable... but my only excuse was that it was true.”
Or to lunch guest Labour’s Nick Brown: “It’s very good to see you here, Nick. I thought you were dead.” Or the sideswipe at the party’s present day Europhobes, that the idea of a federal Europe was “as dead as Jacob Marley”.
It was the – dare one say it – “one nation” politics that made the difference. Not a single cliché about “skivers and strivers”. Instead an appeal to his party not to forsake the “silent have-nots”, many in “lace-curtain poverty”.
“How do I know about these people,” asked the Brixton boy. “Because I grew up with them.” Maybe this wasn’t a barb at the posh boys from Eton and St Pauls. But for all his professions of loyalty, it sounded rather like one.
This was the context in which he said that while wishing Iain Duncan Smith, another of his old tormentors, well in reforming social security, “unless he’s very lucky, which he may not be, or a genius, which last time I looked was unproven, he may get some of it wrong”.
He said later he had intended to give IDS “a ringing endorsement”. If that’s what it was you hated to think what a criticism would have been.
It was, of course, his plan for a levy on the “unacceptably” high-charging energy utilities which will go down worst at No 10. OK, he did initially refer to the Labour leader as “David Miliband”. And he was careful to say on the price freeze plan that while the Miliband heart had been “in the right place, his head had gone walkabout”. But it won’t be Miliband who will be worrying about Sir John’s declaration that he had focused “on the right issue”.
Major would be campaigning with business and – he mentioned them twice – “the trade unions” for a Yes vote in the Europe referendum, which he predicted would end the whole “dreary” debate.
He will be pretty formidable when the time comes. Come to think of it, he wouldn’t do badly leading the Tories again in 2015 – if the party would ever have him. He was, after all, the last Conservative leader actually to win an election outright. Oh yes!