John Major interview: I didn’t anticipate Maastricht was going to be controversial
After a bruising EU referendum campaign, and a summer out of the spotlight, former prime minister Sir John Major reflects on his long political career – and insists he has no appetite for making a comeback
On the 10th December 1991, John Major returned to London from the Dutch city of Maastricht, where he and other European leaders had drafted the treaty that would establish the European Union.
With a general election due the following spring and a small but vocal group of Conservative rebels prepared to fight the agreement all the way, the prime minister faced a choice: bring forward a bill to ratify Maastricht now and risk going to the country with his party divided and weakened, or postpone until he was safely re-elected. He chose to wait.
Every former prime minister has their list of regrets. But that decision, Major tells me when we meet just shy of a quarter of a century later to discuss his legacy, now sticks in his mind “above all”.
“We could have pushed the Maastricht bill through parliament quickly before the 1992 election, and we should have done,” he says. “Plainly, that was a mistake.”
In fact, he believes, if he had brought Maastricht forward immediately then “the whole history of the 1992 to 1997 parliament would have been different”.
This was a parliamentary session dominated by Tory division and rebellion, as the increasingly influential eurosceptics – famously dubbed “bastards” by Major – tried week after week to defeat, and even bring down, their own government.
It’s the kind of what-if that must give ex-prime ministers years of sleepless nights. If he had acted more quickly, could it have all been different? Could the rebellion that went on to hobble the rest of his premiership have been curtailed? And if so, could the emerging, more hardline Tory euroscepticism have been denied such fertile territory?
“People forget, before I went to negotiate Maastricht, I held a debate in which I set out my negotiating position in detail, and I got massive support in the House of Commons,” Major continues.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t push it through because there was such a huge parliamentary majority for it I didn’t anticipate that it was going to be controversial.
Instead, Major postponed the confrontation and, by the autumn of that year, he believes, the febrile atmosphere in his party had paved the way for a “different breed of Conservative” to emerge.
“We chose the things that seemed a greater priority at the time, not anticipating the difference that a change of personnel on the Conservative benches would make," he says. “We came back after the 1992 election, and many of the people who had come in were among those who did most to cause us difficulty in getting that through."
“We could have pushed it through, but I didn’t,” he sighs.
Given the subsequent development of Conservative euroscepticism, it’s not hard to see why that decision now weighs so heavily on Major’s mind.
Comments from Major on contemporary politics have, on the whole, been rare since he left office, but as pressure for a referendum on the EU grew in recent years, so did the frequency of his interventions, until he threw his full weight behind David Cameron’s plan to seek a renegotiation of Britain’s membership, then take that settlement to the country in an in/out vote.
Major’s frontline role backing Remain brought him once again into direct conflict with many of those former rebels, and led to some of the most acrimonious – and personal – clashes of the campaign. An interview with Andrew Marr in which he labelled Boris Johnson a “court jester” drew particular ire; Jacob Rees-Mogg responded by labelling his comments the “bitter ramblings of a vengeful man”.
But Major was undeterred. On the eve of the referendum he went further, warning that if Britain voted Leave “on the basis of half-truths and untruths”, then “pretty soon the gravediggers of our prosperity will have to account for what they have said and done”.
Six months on, Major strikes a very different tone. After throwing so much into the referendum, he retreated from frontline politics in its aftermath and has maintained a public silence since. And as a new Conservative prime minister grapples with the implications of the result, he vows to stay that way.
“Let’s be frank, I am yesterday not tomorrow and I’m very conscious that I’m yesterday not tomorrow,” he says. “I don’t particularly wish to get involved in every aspect of politics. I’m not going to get involved in the daily political dogfights. That is not for me now.”
He admits he has made his views on Europe known in private “quite a lot in the last few months”, and he struggles, in truth, to mask his hurt at the turn of events.
But for the foreseeable future he will be keeping his own counsel. “I will see how things pan out,” he adds. “I don’t think people wish to hear on a regular basis from former prime ministers. They have successors who take decisions, and they should hear from them.”
Given his premiership was so frustrated by his inability to move his party on from the issue of Europe, his self-imposed moratorium on discussing it may be understandable.
But on other areas, he says, he will continue to – “sparingly” – express his views. On poverty, on homelessness, on “opportunities to improve the self-respect of the unemployed”, on inequality. And on the divides which he fears are holding too many people in Britain back.
“We’re still very, very divided in this country,” he says. “Between rich and poor, north and south, in some ways Scotland and England, between those who are getting on and those who aren’t. And the recent debate we have had, the Brexit debate which I’m not going to talk about” – just for a second he breaks his vow of silence with a knowing grin – “was very divisive. Very divisive.”
For the man who stood expectantly on the steps of 10 Downing Street 26 years ago this month and pledged to build “a nation at ease with itself”, this is troubling.
“We’re in a particularly difficult period at the moment,” he says. “The world is in a state of considerable flux, and people sense this. It’s very bewildering.
“For 10 years the vast majority of people have seen no increase in their standard of living at all, while a relatively small number of people have become incredibly rich. That has caused a great deal of disillusion, not just in this country but in America and right across the democratic west. A lot of people have been genuinely left behind, and that’s very damaging.”
Adding to this disillusion, he continues, is a gradual erosion of public faith in politics, driven in part by the distorting impact of 24-hour news and social media – “it does trivialise politics, and it has done a real amount of damage to the perception of politics” – a backlash against a political class that favours spin over frankness – “I detest spin, it is deceit and it is intended to be deceit” – and, ultimately, by the failure of mainstream parties to “reach out beyond the political sphere” and speak to people’s real concerns.
It’s a depressing analysis from a former prime minister. But he believes there are two changes that mainstream politicians can realistically make to begin to tackle the problem.
First, he says, “it would help enormously if the political world learned to speak not to itself but to people beyond the political centres”. “I’ve discovered, since I left politics, that if you go up to Warrington, to Carlisle or to Cornwall, they’re not interested in the same things that obsess the political class in Westminster. They’re concerned about very different things. And we’ve got to speak to them.”
With a smile he quickly corrects himself, remembering his pledge minutes before to stay out of day-to-day public life. “Politics has got to speak to them.”
Second, and more specifically, he says the UK must get serious on vocational training and developing skills in those post-industrial areas that have been “left behind”. He welcomes some of the education reforms of the coalition and Conservative governments but, in his only direct appeal to Theresa May, warns the prime minister that her pledge to build ‘a country that works for everyone’ must make turning around those areas a priority.
“What we aren’t dealing with, sufficiently, is the degree of vocational education,” he says. “The fact is a skilled worker in blue collar is absolutely as valuable to the economy as a worker in white collar. We need to understand that; we need a lot more vocational training, and a lot more opportunities for people, particularly in the traditionally industrial areas, to develop those skills. At the moment we don’t have enough.
“The speech that Theresa May made outside Downing Street, on governing for everybody and following a ‘One Nation’ agenda, must include that. I don’t see how it cannot.”
When the curtain falls, Major declared as he left Downing Street for the final time, "it’s time to get off the stage". It was an end without bitterness or acrimony, as the former prime minister headed off to spend a contented afternoon watching cricket at the Oval.
He had been “mentally prepared” for that moment, he says, from his very first day as prime minister. But the sudden change of pace still left him feeling rattled. “You need to rebalance your life. When you leave office it takes a long time to recover your balance, because your whole life changes. Everything is devoted to politics, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. And then suddenly it isn’t.”
He recalls waking up one morning shortly after leaving Number 10 and turning on the Today programme in a sleepy daze. “They said the prime minister had flown off somewhere, and I thought ‘no I haven’t’. Then I realised it was Tony Blair and not me, so I went back to sleep.”
As his friend and successor David Cameron begins his adjustment to life as an ex-prime minister, does Major have any advice? “It’s a great privilege to be prime minister, however turbulent it may be,” he replies. “I know David. I’m sure having been prime minister he will want to put something back in some way. Which way he will choose, I don’t know. He’s highly intelligent and highly able to make up his own mind what to do.”
He adds: “But you need to wait a bit. I did. I think it’s wise to ration your public comments as a former prime minister in the early years. He’ll have a lot to offer later, but I think he’ll want to ration his comments for the time being. He’s very talented. If he waits, his future path will become clear.”
Former prime ministers have historically taken up a seat in the House of Lords – a tradition broken by Major. Does he rule out taking up a peerage?
“I left politics, why would I want to go back into it?” he replies, adding that he certainly “wouldn’t want the title for no purpose”. “If I went in to the House of Lords I’d feel I had to be there to vote, I’d feel I had to work. And I’ve got a lot of things to do outside politics, that I could never do when I was in politics, that I’m enjoying very much. So you never say never, but I would think it’s unlikely.”
“And in any event,” he adds, “as I understand it, it’s rather crowded.”
Major’s former cabinet colleague Norman Fowler – now presiding over the upper chamber as Lord Speaker – recently warned in an interview with this magazine that the Lords could no longer justify its size, and must “stop faffing around” and significantly cut the number of peers.
It’s an assessment Fowler’s old boss fully backs. “I’m a strong supporter of the House of Lords. There are many people of huge talent who will never stand for election because it isn’t in their DNA. But we need their wisdom in parliament. That’s why I favour a non-elected House of Lords,” he says.
“But I think it should be a smaller House of Lords. It is ludicrous that we have so many people there at the moment.”
Major’s preferred solution would be to build a firewall between the honours system and the appointment of legislators. “There’s never seemed to me to be any reason why you shouldn’t have two forms of peers,” he explains. “There are people in the House of Lords because of what they have achieved – those are who made a peer because of their services to the nation, or their great talent, for example Laurence Olivier – but not because they are likely to be regular or worthwhile legislators.
“Why not have peers who are legislative, and peers who are not legislative? One would go to the House of Lords, and the other would enjoy the honour he has earned, but would not be a legislator.”
As we discuss the changes in parliamentary life since he first entered as a 36-year-old MP back in 1979, Major speaks of the “loss” he feels British politics has suffered from increasing professionalisation. The rise of the ‘SpAd’ class – “they go to university, become an adviser, learn the jargon, get selected, get elected, then go into government with no real experience of life at all” – has damaged decision-making (though he makes a point of praising the recent intake of MPs for their more impressive “hinterland”).
And, perhaps surprisingly for a former prime minister whose time in office was spent in pitched battle with cabals of plotting backbenchers, he regrets the end of Westminster’s club culture. The introduction of more family friendly hours under Robin Cook’s leadership of the House, and the subsequent fall in time MPs spend in and around the Palace, has had a corrosive effect on cross-party relations, he fears.
“Parliament isn’t a nine-to-five job. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be and mustn’t be,” he says. “Prior to the shortening of hours and the shortening of the week, you had MPs sitting around a long time, just waiting for votes, often late at night. Which is wasteful in one sense, but not in another – because those parliamentarians got to know one another very well, they got to know the other parties very well, they formed friendships across those parties. Talking late into the night, they got to understand where the other parties were coming from, and there was much greater mutual respect and understanding.
“Understanding and knowing your opponents produces better government. So it’s a real loss that that’s gone; it makes parliament potentially more tribal than it needs to be.”
Just as damaging, he says, is the impact of professionalisation on the shelf-life of ministers. “You learn a great deal in cabinet,” he says. “But you have people who have been in cabinet for a few years, and our modern world then casts them aside at exactly the moment they’ve learned what they need to know.
“The point, really, about being a senior minister is that if you reflect upon it later, you not only remember what you did that was right, you remember what you did that was not right. And because you’re still in politics you won’t repeat it.
”If people are discarded at a young age, after a handful of years as a minister, then we lose everything they have learned. And that is a loss. There are people who have left politics, and it’s a shame they’ve left it.”
He sits forward and gestures at my tape. “But that’s not a bid by me to get back into politics,” he adds with a laugh. “I can just see how that could be misreported! I’m out of politics.”