The Major Years: a memoir in the making

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Yesterday morning on the Today programme they were discussing why it is that political biographies sell so badly. It seems that new books on Tony Blair and William Hague are currently on the worst-seller list, and Julian Critchley and Tony Howard were being asked to explain why.

The real reason is, of course, that neither Blair nor Hague has yet done anything worth writing about, but the point made by both Critchley and Howard was that Alan Clark's racy diaries had changed the face of political biography and made everything else seem plodding. They agreed that Harold Wilson and Norman Fowler, and Peter Walker and Kenneth Baker, had all produced impressively dull books, that it was unlikely that the Thatcher book would ever get its advance back for HarperCollins ("Many hands make heavy work," someone wittily remarked of the Thatcher millstone masquerading as a book) and that the only really good political memoir of recent years had been Denis Healey's. Austin Mitchell was bright and independent enough to write a good political memoir, someone said, but who else ...?

What was extraordinary was that nobody mentioned John Major as the possible writer of a political autobiography. Here he is, newly tumbled from office, newly resigned as Tory leader, with nothing to do except watch cricket. What clearer signs could there be that the man is wanting to write his life story ?

Why did Critchley and Howard not even mention him as a candidate?

Because they must have known the truth.

That John Major is writing his life story, in conditions of the utmost secrecy. How do I know this? Because I am the man who has been chosen to do it with him.

You may have recently noticed at the bottom of this column the apologetic rubric: "Miles Kington is away" or "Miles Kington is on holiday" or some such mild untruth.

I have in fact been at a secret hideaway in Hertfordshire working with John Major on his life story. And hard going it has been. The man has obviously been so schooled in parliamentary life that he can hardly bring himself to admit anything. This may be excellent for a Prime Minister, but it is disastrous for the subject of a life story.

"What are your chief memories of your prime ministerial years?" I asked him on the first day, by way of a softener.

"We came into office determined to press on with our reforms," he said, leaning forward on the table in that familiar pose of the pub bore at the saloon bar which he always adopted during PM's Question Time. "We had a mandate, and we were going to use that mandate to press ahead with privatisation, and efficiency, and cutting through red tape ..."

"Mr Major!" I said sharply. "We are going to be wasting our time if you persist in regurgitating the hack phrases of Central Office or whoever dreamt up this dreadful stuff. I want your story. I want to know how you remember the Major Years."

"The Major Years," he repeated dreamily. "The Major Years ... I like it ... Is that what we are going to call the book?"

"The title comes later," I said strictly. "First of all we have to establish your story. For a start, tell me how you remember it all. What are the memories that come back most vividly?"

He sat for a moment reminiscing inwardly. Then he seemed to snap out of it.

"Nothing," he said cautiously. "Nothing comes back at all."

"Nothing?"

"You must remember that we had inherited the most holy mess from the previous Labour government. But we brought fresh hope. We had a mandate, and we were going to use that mandate to press ahead with privatisation, and efficiency, and cutting through red tape ..."

"Mr Major!" I said peremptorily. "This is a waste of time. We are going to get nowhere if you will persist in mouthing platitudes. Please let me have your own impressions, not your platitudes honed for the market- place ..."

Mr Major rose from his chair at this point and got down a large book from the shelf. For a moment I thought with wild delight that it was some form of journal which he had secretly kept during his Downing Street years. But then I realised that it was a dictionary, and I saw, over his shoulder, somewhat to my surprise, that he was looking up the word "platitude".

"Gosh! Splendid!" he said, as he read the definition. "I like the sound of these things!"

I realised then that it was going to be harder than I had ever imagined.

Tomorrow: why Michael Howard was never sacked, and what John Major can never forgive Chris Patten for.

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