1990s >> 1996 >> no-1097-january-1996

Greasy Pole: No More Mister Nice Guy

Like watching the sun rise, inch by inch, beyond a distant hill the idea is beginning to dawn that John Major is not, after all, the Very Nice Man he was once supposed to be. Not the simple, relaxed chap you’re pleased to have a chat with over the garden fence or a pint with at the local. Not the concerned family man with the homely wife and the nice kids who do well at school and who are always polite and respectful.

When Major first got the job of Prime Minister, after the men in grey suits had done their duty over Thatcher, it soon became apparent that his background was so obscured as to defeat the most penetrative of media hacks. We were told he came from Brixton, in those innocent days before it gained a reputation for hyperactive police and hyper-reactive rioters. He went to grammar school locally and then failed to become a London Transport bus conductor, which did not seem to have affected his later career at a bank, where he mysteriously scaled the promotion ladder. This must have stood him in good stead when he began to claw his way up the greasy pole of politics, from the local Young Conservatives to MP, to junior minister to Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister.

This was highly unsatisfactory to all those frantically excavating hacks. They could not exhume anything like a scandal about Major, except for still-born stories about a long past relationship with an older woman and a non-existent extramarital affair. Meanwhile Major made soothing declarations about the desire to build a classless society and to lead a nation at ease with itself. A bewildered population began to ask itself whether it could be true: were we about to be governed by a Very Nice Man?

Well, Major himself has answered that question, with evidence that he is as ruthless a political operator as he needs to be. He may lack some of the skills required for this—for example he has not mastered Harold Wilson’s knack of never completely leaving all his boats burned—but he is trying hard. Any problem which attracts publicity is explained away as if the past sixteen years had been spent under some other party in government. If necessary ministers who get in trouble are sacked, after an initial period when Major ritually declares they have his complete support.

Poll Tax debacle
This would have been a shock only to those who had failed to appreciate the steely edge of Major’s ambition. For example, when Thatcher was confronted with the ominous result of the first leadership ballot in 1990 she turned to the two most powerful people in her cabinet—Douglas Hurd at the Foreign Office and Major at the Exchequer—for support in the second ballot. Hurd agreed, according to Thatcher, “at once and with good grace”. But Major was different. This was the man clearly chosen byThatcher as her eventual successor; it might even be said that he owed it all to her. How did he respond to her, in her hour of need?

  “I asked John to second my nomination. There was a moment’s silence. The hesitation was palpable . . . Then he said that if that was what I wanted, yes. Later, when urging my supporters to vote for John for the leadership, I made play of the fact that he did not hesitate. But both of us knew otherwise” (The Downing Street Years).

There are other examples of Major’s careful duplicity. As Financial Secretary to the Treasury and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer he was closely identified with the Poll Tax. From the outset this was a very unpopular measure; multitudes of workers saw it as a blatant attack on their incomes and they showed how they felt with their votes.

It was only when Thatcher had gone and the fact that the Poll Tax was a monumental vote-loser became obvious to all but the most stubborn or stupid of Tories that Major changed his line. During his campaign for the Conservative leadership—and this was partly to undermine Heseltine’s appeal—he promised to review the tax, which really meant to abolish it. It was as if he had never supported it in the first place, just as if the whole mess was someone else’s fault.

Lucky Lamont
That was how it was again over the issue of sterling and the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Again, Major was a supporter of this policy, arguing that it would result in lower interest rates, a stable exchange rate for sterling—and so a big political advantage for the Tories.

Well it didn’t turn out like that and it all came to an end on that September day when interest rates were raised three times within a few hours and the Chancellor of the Exchequer wearily told the assembled media in Downing Street that sterling had been withdrawn from the ERM.

This withdrawal was, apparently, in order to achieve the very conditions which membership of the ERM was to bring in the first place. It was such an abject collapse of a policy that it might even have persuaded some politician—the Chancellor, the Prime Minister—to confess their impotence to control capitalism and fall on their political sword. What happened was that Norman Lamont, who was Major’s choice as Chancellor, took all the blame. He it was who stood mumbling into the microphone in Downing Street and he, some time later, who was sacked by Major. Again, it was almost as if the policies had nothing to do with Major. Not surprisingly, Lamont now sulks on the back benches, sniping at Major’s Teflon-coated image.

So far Major has got away with such breathtaking betrayals of what he claimed were his principles. If the day comes when he is finally, unavoidably, exposed as yet another political trickster we may be sure that we shall be encouraged to believe it matters whether our leaders are nice or nasty. We will be told we can really have a classless society, at ease with itself, if only we have a nice, unassuming, sensible person in charge at Number Ten. When that happens we should remember the cynical, disreputable history of capitalism of which John Major is a part.