08 May 2015

In June 1992 I became one of the civil servants working in John Major’s Policy Unit. Major had just pulled off the same sort of pollster-confounding election result that David Cameron managed today. And he kept his government going for five years – but it often seemed much longer.

Both David Cameron and George Osborne had ringside seats as advisers in the Major government. They will remember how grim it can get.

Major’s problems started even before his poll victory, with the decision – which seemed principled at the time – not to rush his (as it seemed at the time) EU negotiating triumph at Maastricht through the Commons before the election. The decision to postpone legislation until the other side of the 1992 election stored up years of trouble for the Major government, compounded by the trauma of the UK’s dramatic exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (which the UK had joined under Major’s chancellorship) in September of that year.

But the trigger for Major’s loss of support within his own party was another external event: the decision by the Danes in June 1992 to vote ‘No’ to Maastricht. That opened up the previously-settled issue. Shortly thereafter a bunch of Conservative backbenchers – many of them new to Parliament and fundamentally loyal – signed a letter to Major demanding a “Fresh Start” on Europe. But a fresh start was not on offer. The rest of the Major premiership was dominated by the need to get Maastricht through, and then keep his dwindling majority together.

The interesting thing about the Fresh Start letter was that some, at least, of the newbie members who signed it thought they were being helpful to Major – while in practice, they could not have been more unhelpful. The group’s letter represented a failure of intelligence by the party’s business managers and a failure to communicate. Even a PM who had been a former (and very successful) whip and who maintained good links into Parliament did not spot the trouble coming. Parliamentary intelligence and backbench communication are essential to keeping the show on the road. The Chief Whip is one of the most important posts when government has a slim majority: the business managers have to make sure that the government can put together its majority, day in and day out.

In No 10, there were two themes. If Major could not concede to the right on Europe, what could he offer them to keep them onside? The Policy Unit, where I worked, was tasked with finding policies that could appeal. That led, inter alia, to the ill-fated Back to Basics, which rebounded with horrible consequences as what was initially conceived as an appeal to get back to the essentials was spun by others as a moral crusade – and held up a mirror to the standards of individual ministers.

The government lived on a knife edge. Every time a confidence vote loomed Sarah Hogg, who ran the Policy Unit, would summon the special advisers and warn them that they might lose their jobs the next day. Longer-term thinking was repeatedly overtaken by the need for short-term fixing.

But away from Westminster freneticism, the day to day business of government proceeded. There are lots of things governments can do without troubling Parliament. Initiatives such as the Citizen’s Charter, the first moves to resolve 30 years of stalemate in Northern Ireland, and the forced institution of a new regime of economic management post-ERM exit – inflation targets and more openness on interest rates – could all be achieved without going to Parliament. With a small – or absent – majority, there are clear attractions to going to Parliament less.

In many ways John Major had it easier than David Cameron will now. Major started off with a majority of 21 – greater than Cameron appears likely to achieve. And he did not face challenges with such explosive potential as an EU referendum and a new internal constitutional settlement. The next few years will be a major test of David Cameron’s political skills.

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