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 …

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