Major players: The 1990 generation

Written by Sam Macrory on 3 January 2014 in Interview
Interview
With John Major returning to the front pages, Sam Macrory took a tour around Whitehall and Westminster and discovered that plenty of the former prime minister’s first cabinet, who first met 23 years ago this month, are more influential than you might think

“When the curtain falls, it is time to leave the stage”

That theatrical statement was made in typically un-showy style by John Major as he walked away from the rubble of the Conservative Party's 1997 general election defeat. It had been seven long and painful years since Major had sat down with his first cabinet, and he appeared to be relieved to head into a retirement of lecture tours and cricket matches – a pleasant reverie broken by some recent headline-making speeches on the current state of the party.

For the majority of his cabinet, many of whom had been with him since that November day in 1990, the 1st of May 1997 also saw the start of a rather more protracted final curtain call.

Just Ken Clarke, education secretary in 1990, saw out the opposition years to return to government under David Cameron – twenty-three years on from Major’s first day in charge. Clarke, at 73, sits in the cabinet as minister-without-portfolio, or as some of his colleagues joke, the minister for anecdotes.

However, the class of 1990 have shown something of a taste for political survival.

Perhaps it's not immediately apparent, but around Whitehall, Westminster, and beyond, plenty of John Major's picks for his first cabinet are wielding considerable influence, in some cases maybe even more so than Clarke – the sole cabinet minister among them.

Many of these politicians are in their seventies, one in his early eighties. All could retire comfortably, if they wished. So why don’t they? What drives them on? And what is it like being an ex-minister with hands still on, or at least capable of nudging, the levers of power?

 

High up in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, along the corridor from the ministerial quarters, you can find a room with a sign marked ‘Lord Heseltine’s Office’ above the door. Major's first environment secretary is still, at 81, very much involved in the process of government, 23 years on from that first meeting of Major's cabinet.

Recalling that day, Heseltine, who had sat out the last four years of the Thatcher government after famously storming out over the Westland affair, reflects on leaving a Cabinet “where there were significant number of senior figures, some older than me – I think immediately of Willie Whitelaw, of Quintin Hailsham, giants of another generation" and returning to find himself “looking at a generation much younger. That was a very notable impact, on me personally.”

Over two decades on, Heseltine, who still runs his publishing empire, remains in demand with an even younger generation. In 2006 David Cameron joined Heseltine on a visit to Liverpool, the city which Heseltine has been deeply tied to ever since he visited in 1981 following the Toxteth riots, and along with Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy the former deputy prime minister authored a report, Rebalancing Britain: Policy or Slogan?, calling for more regional devolution of powers. That publication then led to the prime minister inviting Heseltine into BIS to author a report on how to stimulate the economies of English cities other than London. No Stone Unturned, dubbed Plan ‘H’ by chancellor George Osborne, was published last November, with the government taking on much of its recommendations. “The money is £20bn. It’s not the £60bn I asked for but it is much more than anyone else got. Nothing in the public sector moves at the pace someone in the private sector would like, but I have a growing sense of optimism that it has been more than worthwhile. But of course, someone like me is going to say I want to go faster.”

He’s busy travelling up and down the country, making the case, and is determined to keep Plan 'H' up and running, either from BIS or on the road. “Recently I haven’t been here that much. It varies”, Heseltine replies when asked how often he’s based in BIS, a building which he commissioned when working down the road as the trade and industry secretary in the early 1990s. “I’ve no programmes, no timetables. I just do what people ask me to do.”

It sounds like an arrangement which suits him, especially when asked what he misses about being in government. "There's quite a lot I don’t miss," he answers. "The night boxes. The endless volume of work on things that have to be dealt with but are not mainstream to your own particular priorities. And just the physical strain of it – a minister's life is a very tough life. I'm doing the things that I like doing."

He insists that “there were never those sort of plans” when asked if he had mapped out a career that continues into his ninth decade, but is baffled that he would want to step away,

“The idea that having spent 30, 40 years in regeneration that I would lose interest just doesn’t make sense” he argues, relishing the opportunity “to play some minor role in the evolution of ideas and proposals which one worked on in the 70s, 80s, 90s and onwards.”

Heseltine points out that he was given an official in each department to help on his report, a set-up he thinks is unprecedented. He then smiles when he considers the main attribute he brings to the table. “What I do have is the most boring thing of all: experience. They’re going round, as new ministers, the track for the first time. I have been round, and round, and round that track, and politics is very repetitive. The issues keep coming back.”

 

A few streets away in a busy Millbank office, Kenneth Baker, Major's first home secretary, is launching University Technical Colleges across the country, rectifying what he calls “the big omission in the English education system.” He chuckles at the memory of Major's first cabinet, and the new prime minister's opening gambit of "who'd have thought it?"

Born in 1934, a year after Heseltine, he shares the opinion that it would be simply bizarre to walk away.

“You should never retire,” Baker argues. “You should just go on as long as your body and mind can take it. It’s wonderfully stimulating and it just keeps me going, frankly. I don’t play golf. I play bridge. But I don’t want to spend every day playing bridge. I’m doing something very useful for our country.”

Mrs Thatcher’s former education secretary is determined to train up a new generation of engineers, technicians and specialists. “It’s taken over my life”, he admits. “Liverpool this week, going to Silverstone on Friday, and trying to get more through the department tomorrow. It’s so exciting. I’ve always wanted to do things – before I went into politics I was businessman – and be active. I do this for nothing. I just think it’s got to be done.”

Unlike Heseltine, Baker does not have a desk at the Department for Education, but he says he’s “lobbying the department weekly”, has “strong support from the prime minister and George Osborne”, and is happy to work as the “fig leaf” for education secretary Michael Gove.

But he knows that having been there and done it as a minister, he's already got an advantage over any would-be educational campaigners.

“You know how things are done. It all helps. The networking helps. And I know how to set up a good school” says Baker. “If you’ve been a minister you know how things work. You know how things happen. You know how to handle Whitehall. If I’d just been a chap who had a vision, what the department would have said is ‘very interesting, have you got the money, let’s set up an experimental one or two and see how they work for five years.’ I wasn’t going to fall for that trap. If you’re going to change something in education, create institutions. The only way we’re going to make this change is create as many as we can, as quickly as we can.”

 

Over by St James’ Park, John Gummer, Major’s first minister for agriculture, fisheries and food, is keeping himself busy as the chairman of the independent Committee on Climate Change, a role which gives him the chance to flex his pro-green muscles against a party which sounds increasingly unconvinced.

The now Lord Deben looks back on a "very happy mood" at Major's first cabinet. "We were friends, we had got the solution most of us wanted – he was an ideal person to bring people together", Gummer recalls. "There was a genuine feeling of happiness."

Nearly 22 years later, when he was appointed to the CCC, Gummer fully expected his age to be a factor. "When I was appointed chairman, I was all prepared to have to answer the question: 'You're 72', or whatever I was, 'shouldn’t you be….". Gummer begins to laugh. Retiring? "Nobody asked me that question. I was going to say: 'You ought to be asking, 'are you going to be giving me a second go in five years?'"

Just like Baker and Heseltine, the idea that he should stop makes no sense at all. "I've never understood the word ‘retirement’. I don't know what you would do. I'm lucky to have a happy family and four children, but we're all better off together because we're all busy and doing things."

He also agrees that being a minister has made all the difference for his post-ministerial life.

"I couldn't do this job if I hadn’t been a minister, under these present circumstances. The concept of being politically aware – you couldn’t have done that if you hadn't been a cabinet minister and understood how these things work. You know the pressure points. You know how the system works. "

 

Other than Clarke, there are a few more survivors in the Commons. One of them is Peter Lilley. He was the trade and industry secretary in Major's first cabinet, though was later labelled a "bastard" by the prime minister for his eurosceptic views – an insult revisited by Major in a recent speech when he joked that his "only excuse is that it was true."

Lilley didn’t get the call to return to the frontbenches under Cameron, but he brings his experience of a decade’s ministerial work for both Mrs Thatcher and John Major to bear as a member of the Number 10 policy board.

He enjoys having "some degree of influence, [though] I shouldn’t exaggerate it" as a "point man" on what he calls a "kind of non executive board with full time members, special advisers, civil servants. We can feed things in and hopefully they can use us as a sounding board.”

And does it help that he has run departments and is now working under his fifth Conservative leader? "Experience has some value, but it's not something you can spread around your colleagues like jam", he replies, clarifying his metaphor by adding that he has no desire to "spread jam on one’s colleagues…."

But, he adds, youth should not be discounted. "I look back at my own career – I did things which were quite innovative quite early on and you certainly don’t want a government of old lags."

So did he ever think, back on November 23rd 1990, where he would be nearly a quarter of a century on? "Fifteen years is about my future horizon. Anyone 15 years older than me is old, I have always thought that. When I was 15 I thought aged 30 was old. When I was 30 I thought people who were 45 were old. Now I think people in their mid-80s are old."

 

Most of that Major cabinet, however, have been more comfortable with the concept of retirement. Is Baker surprised that so few are still in the Commons, and just one is in the Cabinet? He admits it is a “pity, in a way” that so many have left, but echoes Major when he says there must be a time to leave the stage. “I am going to be 80 next year. At some stage you’ve got to withdraw from the House of Commons. You have to plan your exits. It’s a very important thing to do – and most politicians don’t do that.”

Peter Lilley, one of those still sitting on the green benches, disagrees.

"I’m surprised that others have given up so young, that so many should have fallen by the wayside so young", he says, with a smile, when asked about all those who have relocated to the Lords or left the building all together. "My great grandmother lived to 102 and she used to talk about her cousins, who died, respectively, aged 93 and 97, as if they really hadn’t got proper stamina, so I think people who have gone to the House of Lords must have given up in some way. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do – my wife has been trying to persuading me to go for the last three elections…."

Do they feel old when they look at the fresh-faced men and women in charge today? Baker laughs at the thought. After all, George Osborne, the chancellor, wasn’t even born by the time Baker first entered the Commons, and when Baker served as party chairman he employed a young David Cameron as his PA.

"They are young to me. They’re half my age. They’re in the 40s. I am 80", Heseltine replies. But do they seem young? "I don’t think about that. I know some of them quite well and they don’t seem to me to have any barriers in talking to me about what they're doing, and I don’t find I have any barriers talking to them."

Gummer has his own reasons for looking beyond the lack of grey hair and wrinkles around the cabinet. "I've always looked so young myself, much younger than I was, so I never had that. It was a draw back for me when I was very young – I didn't look old enough to be voting, let alone be in parliament – so I'm very conscious of never thinking about it."

Lilley doesn't see a cabinet full of young men and women either. "No – I have to force myself to think the converse is true. They think I am very old, I don’t feel old. I haven’t really grown up properly."

But will the Cameron generation follow in the footsteps of Baker, Heseltine and co.?

Baker says “it will be interesting what they do when they all decide to take their clogs off”, but he wonders if the same spirit of public service will be seen again.

“In the old days people sort of made their money first or had an experience of doing things – I’m talking about the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s – and would probably not enter parliament until their late 40s, early 40s, and they would make that the rest of their life as it were. The pattern today is fast growth at the beginning. People go quickly, and tend to leave early, that will be the pattern”. And, he adds, public service will suffer. “Yes, it loses an enormous amount.”

Heseltine is less concerned, pointing out that he entered the Commons at the youthful age of 33. “It’s horses for courses,” he says when asked whether the current crop will continue in public service well into old age. “My own very clear impression is they actually love what they are doing and want to go on doing it.”

Gummer would like to see MPs broadening their experiences before they leave parliament, and "feels very strongly that members of parliament should have another job… otherwise you have only got your memories and theories, and those memories become longer and longer."

And what about the New Labour class of '97? A new dawn had broken, had it not, as Tony Blair floridly declared when he swept the Conservative government from power. Sixteen years on, dusk has long since fallen. Many, such as Blair himself, John Prescott, Chris Smith and Clare Short have already left the Commons, with Jack Straw set to join them in 2015. In seven years' time, a full 23 years from its first meeting, how many of New Labour’s first Cabinet will be as influential as the Major generation?

Baker can't think of anyone in particular, though suggests Alan Milburn, who joined the Cabinet in 1998 and quit Parliament in 2010, will continue to be an influential figure from the outside. Gummer laughs at the question. He clearly doesn't have high hopes… "I find that a lot more difficult. It was the sheer superficiality of Tony Blair… there is no depth in his views of the world, and that really coloured that cabinet."

So was there something different about that first Major cabinet, or was it just a collective of highly motivated, highly energetic people, brought together at the same time?

“It’s the nature of the person,” says Baker. “Michael Heseltine and I are both by nature active. John Gummer is the same. Ken Clarke is certainly built like that. He’s a great chum. He skids by and survives.  He likes being in the game.”

Gummer has a more simple reason for the ongoing enthusiasm of that era of politician: "We enjoyed ourselves, and it was a very happy crowd."

Do they still meet up today? “There’s not a club we all go to and have dinner or anything like that, but we know what each other are doing…” says Baker, with Heseltine adding: “We’re all very busy so it’s wrong to think one is sitting here day after day having a pint or a glass of wine with people one served with in cabinets, but I would regard people from Margaret’s, and John Major’s cabinets, as friends. I am pleased to see them, I hope they are occasionally pleased to see me…” Gummer also points that he and Clarke, along with the likes of Norman Lamont, Michael Howard, Leon Brittan and Norman Fowler were Cambridge contemporaries. "We all went to university together and we're friends, and there's quite a lot of honorary members of that group – there's a real relationship."

Heseltine, Gummer, Clarke, Lilley and Baker aren't the only ones of that class of 1990 who remain in influential positions. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Major's first transport secretary, chairs the Intelligence and Security committee, while a few miles north, Chris Patten, the party chairman who many feel helped Major to win the 1992 election at the expense of his own Commons seat, is busy chairing the BBC.

But what about their futures? Not surprisingly, you won't find that they have any plans to retire any time soon.

“No, I don’t. The good lord will one day make up his mind” Heseltine declares, with Baker determined to go on working “until I fall off the perch.”

And Lilley, like Clarke, will stand for Parliament again in 2015, as "Mrs Lilley has already given me permission." What are his plans? He admits that he doesn’t "sit around at reshuffles waiting by my phone… but should I be asked to serve in some humble capacity – I say this trivially – I would be happy to serve." Otherwise, he adds, he would be just as happy as a "humble backbencher", doing "something useful and interesting – I think that’s what MPs ought to do rather than constantly think about climbing up the greasy pole." He then adds, returning back to the days when he fell out with Major: "… or wreaking vengeance on people who wronged them 20 years earlier."

Gummer says he has an "extremely sensible wife" who would tell him "if he became unable to do things." Until then, he can see no reason to stop any time soon." The surprising thing is that the concept of ageism has almost gone. I look at people like Michael Heseltine, who is ten years older than me, and doing brilliantly, and is alive in every possible way, and I have a friend who is 102 and still goes into the office every morning – so I think to myself, why not?"

These veterans of the 1990 cabinet, who remain at the highest end of the political process, sound like they intend to go on and on. John Major's words when he first met them are fitting. "Who'd have thought it?" The curtain shows no sign of falling any time soon.

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