It is a hard style to distil. Not for John Major the epigrams and brilliant conceits by which his great predecessors are remembered. In the new Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, the closest Major gets to vivid is a drab phrase such as "back to basics", or the uncharacteristically mean "condemn a little more and understand a little less". The closest he gets to colour is his celebrated remark in 1993 about his critics in the Conservative Party: "I could name eight people - half of those eight are barmy. How many apples short of a picnic?"
It's that "apple", conjoined with the weird, querying question mark, that epitomises the style. Half-cock aphorisms spill from his lips, only rescued from utter commonplaceness by being slightly wrong, slightly off key. The touchstone of a Majorism is that it rings untrue. He attempts dignity or resonance and sounds merely pompous ("a measurably short period of years") or pointlessly long-winded (instead of "he worked near" he will say "plied his trade in the environs of"). He aspires to rouse but sends us to sleep - "We can no more stop fighting the battle against big government than a gardener can stop mowing the lawn" - or makes us giggle: "Removing regulations from Whitehall is like wrestling with a greasy pig."
Like his party, he is stubbornly aspirational. He knows he's not funny, but he must have a go: "Pitt enjoyed the occasional glass," he'll say. "I'm not sure if that's why they call it Downing Street." He has trouble with figures of speech, but will blunder through, telling supporters in Sedgefield that "wearing your heart on your sleeve butters no parsnips". To avoid lowering the tone, he referred to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia as "the difficulties that existed in Yugoslavia".
He talks, in other words, like a man who has lost his bearings, and is groping sightlessly across the wastes of his mother tongue; like a man who has been catapulted unfairly out of the comfortable mediocrity to which he will now return.
Then, suddenly, there's a different tone. Just after the parsnips remark, he said, remembering the Labour councils of his youth, "It made me sick to the stomach the way Labour patronised the people of this country. I am as full of contempt for all that Labour stands for as I have ever been."
Coming from Major, it was a flash of emotion that was almost Kinnockesque - with the difference that Major clearly meant it. Suddenly you knew why he was in politics. Once upon a time, there had been a real reason.Reuse content