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The Making of Mr. Major

On the day the war ended in the Persian Gulf so did Britain’s phony domestic peace. Prime Minister John Major went to the House of Commons to give the expected praise to the courage of soldiers and airmen and the prescience of their commanders. He added some words of gratitude to the opposition parties for their staunch bi-partisanship during the crisis, which, by his own restrained manner and tone of voice throughout, he had gone out of his way to encourage. He also praised Margaret Thatcher who that afternoon was making one of her rare appearances in the Commons. Her resolution, he said, had played a key part from the outset in rallying international support for the Kuwaiti cause: “She has been totally vindicated by events.”

A few moments later the Member for Finchley rose in her place on the government back benches, three rows behind where she was accustomed to sit as prime minister. These were the first words she had spoken since her bravura valedictory performance at the Dispatch Box on November 22, hours after tendering her resignation to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. There was thunderous rumbling of parliamentary approval from the men who three months earlier had so unceremoniously sent her packing. What she had to say on “this Victory Day” was of no great consequence but there was much poignancy in the spectacle of her saying it from where she stood.

It is not necessary to imagine her thoughts that afternoon, for they had been assiduously spread around West-minster from her court-in-exile. According to this gossip, she had come to the conclusion that she had been tricked out of the leadership of the Conservative party—falsely informed, wrongly advised, and betrayed by persons she had counted her friends. Shortly afterward some of this was to come spilling out in an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters:

You expect your party to stay with you when the going gets tough. Some of them didn’t. Absurd! We’ve had unpopularity in between elections before. They got scared—so be it, so be it.

This referred to her belief, encouraged by loyal acolytes, that had she not allowed herself to be persuaded by cabinet colleagues that she faced humiliation and defeat, had she gone through to a second ballot in last November’s leadership contest, she could have beaten Michael Heseltine’s challenge to her leadership of the party. After all, John Major had been elected with 184 MPs’ votes in the three-cornered second ballot, while on the first she had commanded the support of 203, a majority of those voting. Under the peculiar rules of the Conservative party leadership elections this margin of victory was not large enough but, on any reasonable assessment, who was the legitimate leader of the party? That was the question her friends were asking as the Major honeymoon drew to its close.

Suppose, they went on, she had stood her ground and won, showing up Michael Heseltine as the self-promoting opportunist many conservatives privately or publicly believed him to be. In November, to be sure, the Labour opposition had a fifteen-point lead in opinion polls; the Conservatives were split on Europe, and Mrs. Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since Neville Chamberlain. But those were the depths of a mid-term blues. Where would she have stood today? She would have stood victorious at the Dispatch Box, the Iron Lady, once more, who in Aspen, Colorado, in August had urged on an uncertain American president (“no time to go wobbly, George”) to launch a thousand aircraft against Saddam Hussein. Not only that, for the Gulf crisis had seemed to vindicate the skeptical position that she had taken toward Europe and that had triggered her downfall. Saddam had exposed the European Community (France apart) for what she had always known it to be—mostly talk and little action; meanwhile, her insistence on the primacy of the “special relationship” with the United States had been vindicated by a dramatic demonstration of American will and power.

That she should think like this, dwell constantly and morbidly upon her downfall, and rehearse in her mind and over whisky with friends the circumstances of her downfall, was understandable enough in her continuing shell-shocked state.

Her version, however, bears little relation either to the true causes of her downfall or to present political fealties. As John Major rose in the Commons the afternoon of March 2, opinion polls were rating him the most popular British prime minister since Winston Churchill. Nor did that have much to do with his reputation as war leader, which consisted chiefly in giving loyal support to George Bush in what had been essentially an American war. Major’s astonishing popularity—astonishing because he was scarcely known to the British people—began from the moment of her downfall. He was popular, first and foremost, because he was not Margaret Thatcher.

Moreover, she had largely brought her downfall upon herself; that now is an old story but it is a tale of tragic hubris in which the vices of the virtues she had displayed in her eleven-year reign had alienated too many of her cabinet colleagues—driving first Nigel Lawson, her chancellor, and then Sir Geoffrey Howe, her deputy, to resignation—and undermined her party’s confidence in her ability to lead it to a fourth successive victory. It was true that she had been deposed ultimately by a classic cabinet coup but that was because friend and foe alike among its members had concluded that Heseltine’s challenge had destroyed her authority to govern.

And so it had; the overnight resurgence of support for the new government under Major, in the face of a deepening economic recession combined with punitively high interest rates and double-digit inflation, was the proof of it. Indeed, the November coup had seemingly achieved the remarkable feat of providing Britain with a new government in mid-parliamentary term. The country’s mood, as shown in the polls, had been that it was “time for a change” after so long a dose of Mrs. Thatcher. Normally, under the British two-party parliamentary system changes in government are registered by the electorate at election time. But here was a party, long in power, renewing itself without losing power—or so it seemed. Whatever the Thatcherite court-in-exile might say, her successor did not lack legitimacy in the eyes of the nation. Indeed, the transition from Thatcher to post-Thatcher had been accomplished with a remarkable rapidity and ease, and on that day when the war ended there can have been few in the House of Commons in doubt about who was the rightful prime minister.

At the same time, as the first hundred days of John Major were completed, few could claim with much confidence that they knew who he was, what he really stood for, or how he would turn out. He had at the age of forty-six risen to his dizzy preferment without leaving a trace, as the joke had it, and it was almost literally true. The television researchers had been able to find little of archive footage of Major on the way up and the newspaper profiles of him consist of the same few anecdotes strung together. The best-known fact about him is that his father was for a brief period a circus artist, a tightrope performer, although the humble circumstances of his youth, of which much is made, owe not to that but to his father’s later failure in the business of selling garden gnomes. This resulted in the family moving from the genteel Surrey suburbs to a small flat in the multiracial inner city borough of Brixton.

He was obliged to leave school at sixteen and having failed to obtain a job as a bus conductor spent eight months living on the dole, then £2.87 a week. This experience, together with the reduced circumstances of his family, is said to have left him with an abiding horror of the ravages of inflation on people of low fixed income. He is the first prime minister to have had no university education since the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, in 1924, but he reveals none of the insecurities of the self-educated except, perhaps, his ultramethodical habit of drawing a line down a yellow pad and listing the pros and cons of any question as he thinks or talks.

He made his way, first, in an insurance office and then during fourteen years in banking, where he rose from clerk to manager while also serving as a conservative member of the socialist-controlled Lambeth borough council. After two unsuccessful bids for a parliamentary seat he was elected to a safe county seat of Huntingdon in 1978. His assiduous talents were quickly recognized and he was soon employed as a junior in the Whips office, which is the classic springboard for party preferment. From there he was promoted to junior minister at the Department for Social Security where, the story goes, he engaged in an argument with Mrs. Thatcher in which he challenged her proposed cuts in welfare. He assumed this to be the end of his promising career, but occasionally she would take a fancy to young men who dared cross swords with her and Major was one of the lucky ones. He was promoted to the Treasury and, following the 1987 election, elevated to the Cabinet as chief secretary, the Treasury minister responsible for public expenditures. The job involves acting as chief prosecutor against the big spending departments but Major, although a sound money man, once more left no enemies behind him. Some attribute this to his luck in presiding over buoyant revenues at the time, others to the suppressed social conscience which has since emerged. One way or the other, additional funds were allocated to health, transport, scientific research, and other areas neglected during the Thatcher years.

Thereafter he was talked about as a Thatcher favorite and one-day likely successor. His status as heir apparent seemed confirmed when, to general astonishment, she made him foreign secretary on the dismissal of Sir Geoffrey Howe in July 1989 after Howe and Lawson had ganged up on her over the issue of Britain’s joining the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. When Lawson resigned a few months later during the same simmering row over exchange rate policy and Britain’s role within the European Community, Major returned to the Treasury as chancellor. A year later he became prime minister after only three-and-a-half years on the cabinet.

Because so much of his brief career had been spent in the Treasury his reputation was as a technician, a managerial-type of minister willing to work hard to master details. According to treasury insiders, he revealed little of Nigel Lawson’s creative interest in economic policy-making. He was instead a highly political chancellor, always attuned to party sentiment and electoral implications of policy. He soon resolved, as Lawson had before him, that the pound should enter the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. Not only persuaded by the Treasury case for doing so on counterinflationary grounds, he saw that Mrs. Thatcher’s obstinacy was tearing the Conservative party apart. He proved more adept at handling her than either Lawson or Howe, and, taking shelter behind his reputation as a Thatcher protégé and unenthusiastic European, quietly encouraged expectations in financial markets, until, in the end, they could no longer be gainsaid. During his entire career, he made few enemies; indeed, the consistent testimony of those who worked with him was to his “niceness”—everybody uses the word. He was always courteous in his dealings, attentively considerate, remembering the names of colleagues and their wives, swift with little personal notes of congratulation or condolence; he was “well liked.”

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