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  • Scott Cresswell

Sir John Major and the Tory Outcast Club


Sir John Major, pictured here in 2013, was Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997. A week ago, he said Prime Minister Boris Johnson broke Covid rules, was dishonest and was risking the health of UK democracy.

As a political force and party, the Tories have many achievements in their favour. They are the oldest (founded in 1834, but their history goes back to the 17th century Civil War) and most successful political party in the world. With the exception of some Liberal and then Labour interludes, they’ve governed Britain for a total of eight decades since their dominance began in the general election of 1886. However, their history is littered with leaders and Prime Ministers who have, within their own ranks, failed.

Boris Johnson, who has led the Tories for over two years, was envisaged to be a truly transformational figure. But then, so was Theresa May, and David Cameron. Months ago, there were boasts that he “eyes another decade in power”, but these delusions are slowly being proven to be seen for what they are. Johnson has failed to live up to “true Conservatism”, sorely missed by a bitter Daily Telegraph and right-wingers.

But don’t kid yourself, Boris Johnson is hardly the first.

Long ago, there was a man called John Major. The Conservatives of today, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, attack Major as a “vengeful” relic from the past, despite his success as Tory leader in the 1990s by extending the party’s lease of power when it looked as if Mrs Thatcher had doomed it with the poll tax. Major, although far from a great Prime Minister, achieved the unthinkable for the Tories in winning an unprecedented fourth term.

John Major’s attack on Johnson’s government and his remarks that the “truth is optional” is indeed scathing, but the reception among Conservatives is one of instant dismissal. John Major has become the new Edward Heath, that sulking figure who sat glaring at Margaret Thatcher for nearly sixteen years after she beat him for the leadership of their party. Like Heath, Major sees Johnson as leading an unrecognisable party. He joins the incredibly large club of previous Tory leaders. To understand this tendency, you have to be aware of the history of the Conservative Party and not just their love of deposing leaders, but their historic attitude towards them.

Arguably, the Tories have only had a handful of titans who have led them and changed their ideology. Three strikingly come to mind; the High Toryism of Pitt the Younger, Disraeli’s One-Nation Conservatism, and most obviously the neo-liberalism of Thatcher. All three of these followed on from periods of opposition for the Tories, and these beliefs ensured periods of Tory dominance and Prime Ministers who rank highly for transformational policies. This trio, accompanied by Winston Churchill, are most probably cited by most Conservatives as heroes of their cause. But what of the others?

While Liberals can boast Grey, Gladstone, and Lloyd George, and Labour can cite Attlee, Wilson, and Blair as ideologues within their movements, Conservative history is full of leaders with supplementary ideas designed by far greater thinkers. Addington and Liverpool follow on from Pitt’s Toryism. While Robert Peel began the foundations of modern Conservatism, it failed to materialise until Disraeli, with the following policies of Salisbury, Baldwin, and Macmillan continuing with that one-nation trend. As for Thatcher, her free-market blessing to the Tories has influenced all those who’ve followed her, including those counterfeit Disraelites such as Cameron, Johnson, and even Theresa May.

Those leaders, certainly since the days of Disraeli, have either been dismissed or quietly forgotten about. Major and Heath suffered badly in the looming shadow of Thatcher, leaving an ancient Harold Macmillan to explicitly defend One-Nation Conservatism in a speech from 1984 during the miners’ strike:

“It breaks my heart to see – and I cannot interfere – what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in. It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing”

Kind words from one of the last living links to the days of Baldwin and Chamberlain (both equally maligned figures for appeasement before Churchill’s dynamism during the war). The speech may have been out-of-touch from the era in which the post-war consensus of Butskellism was dead, but the sympathy echoed here was different from the mainstream of Thatcher’s Conservatives.

The story of the Conservative Party is often failing to live up to expectations. They believed that, within the party, one-nationism could be sustained. But there were many on the right who believed the Macmillan and Heath governments were too left-wing, failing to stand for true Conservatism. It happened with John Major, David Cameron, and Theresa May. None could honour Thatcherism, the dominant belief system. Johnson is yet another example of conforming to non-conformity, accompanied with his lack of reinvention for the party he leads.

Events have proved that, unlike Pitt, Disraeli, Churchill, or Thatcher, Johnson will not be remembered as a great leader. In the years that follow, when the Tories are back in opposition and attempting to regain the keys to Number 10, they’ll look back at the Johnson years with quiet embarrassment. The only consistency is inconsistency. It seems there was something in Labour’s 2006 ‘Dave the Chameleon’ campaign after all.

Image - Flickr (Chatham House)



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