John Major

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Sir John Major

clean-shaven middle-aged white man with grey hair, wearing glasses, with a spotted tie.
Major in 1996
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
28 November 1990 – 2 May 1997
MonarchElizabeth II
DeputyMichael Heseltine (1995–97)
Preceded byMargaret Thatcher
Succeeded byTony Blair
Leader of the Opposition
In office
2 May 1997 – 19 June 1997
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterTony Blair
Preceded byTony Blair
Succeeded byWilliam Hague
Leader of the Conservative Party
In office
28 November 1990 – 19 June 1997
DeputyViscount Whitelaw (1990–91)
Preceded byMargaret Thatcher
Succeeded byWilliam Hague
Ministerial offices
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
26 October 1989 – 28 November 1990
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byNigel Lawson
Succeeded byNorman Lamont
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
In office
24 July 1989 – 26 October 1989
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded bySir Geoffrey Howe
Succeeded byDouglas Hurd
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
In office
13 June 1987 – 24 July 1989
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byJohn MacGregor
Succeeded byNorman Lamont
Minister of State for Social Security
In office
10 September 1986 – 13 June 1987
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byTony Newton
Succeeded byNicholas Scott
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security
In office
2 September 1985 – 10 September 1986
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byJohn Patten
Succeeded byNicholas Lyell
Lord Commissioner of the Treasury
In office
3 October 1984 – 1 November 1985
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byAlastair Goodlad
Succeeded byTim Sainsbury
Member of Parliament
for Huntingdon
(Huntingdonshire, 1979–1983)
In office
3 May 1979 – 14 May 2001
Preceded byDavid Renton
Succeeded byJonathan Djanogly
Personal details
Born (1943-03-29) 29 March 1943 (age 77)
St Helier, Surrey, England
Political partyConservative
Norma Johnson (m. 1970)
ParentsTom Major-Ball (father)
RelativesTerry Major-Ball (brother)
EducationRutlish School
WebsiteOfficial website Edit this at Wikidata

Sir John Major KG CH (born 29 March 1943) is a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997. Major was Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Thatcher Government from 1989 to 1990, and was Member of Parliament (MP) for Huntingdon from 1979 until his retirement in 2001. Since the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, he has been both the oldest and earliest-serving of all living former prime ministers.

Born in St Helier, Surrey, Major grew up in Brixton. He initially worked as an insurance clerk, and then at the London Electricity Board, before becoming an executive at Standard Chartered. He was first elected to the House of Commons at the 1979 general election as MP for Huntingdon. He served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, Assistant Whip and as a Minister for Social Security. In 1987, he joined the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and was promoted to foreign secretary two years later. Just three months later in October 1989, he was appointed chancellor of the Exchequer, where he presented the 1990 budget. Major became prime minister after Thatcher resigned in November 1990. He presided over British participation in the Gulf War in March 1991, and negotiated the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991.[1] He went on to lead the Conservatives to a record fourth consecutive electoral victory, winning the most votes in British electoral history with over 14 million votes at the 1992 general election, albeit with a reduced majority in the House of Commons. Shortly after this, in what came to be known as Black Wednesday (September 1992), his government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. This event led to a loss of confidence in Conservative economic policies and Major was never able to achieve a lead in opinion polls again.

Despite the eventual revival of economic growth amongst other successes such as the beginnings of the Northern Ireland peace process, by the mid-1990s, the Conservative Party was embroiled in scandals involving various MPs (including cabinet ministers). Criticism of Major's leadership reached such a pitch that he chose to resign as party leader in June 1995, challenging his critics to either back him or challenge him; he was duly challenged by John Redwood but was easily re-elected. By this time, the Labour Party had moved toward the centre under the leadership of Tony Blair and won many by-elections, eventually depriving Major's government of a parliamentary majority in December 1996.[2] Major went on to lose the 1997 general election five months later, in one of the largest electoral defeats since the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Major was succeeded by William Hague as Leader of the Conservative Party in June 1997. He went on to retire from active politics, leaving the House of Commons at the 2001 general election. In 1999, a BBC Radio 4 poll ranked him 17th of 19 among 20th-century British prime ministers;[3] in 2016, a University of Leeds survey ranked him 6th of 13 among post-war prime ministers.[4]

Early life and education (1943–1959)[edit]

260 Longfellow Road, Worcester Park, where John Major grew up from 1943-55

John Major was born on 29 March 1943 at St Helier Hospital and Queen Mary's Hospital for Children in St Helier, Surrey, the son of Gwen Major (née Coates, 1905–1970) and former music hall performer Tom Major-Ball (1879–1962), who was 63 years old when Major was born.[5] He was christened "John Roy Major" but only "John Major" was recorded on his birth certificate;[6][7] he used his middle name until the early 1980s.[8] His birth had been a difficult one, with his mother suffering from pleurisy and pneumonia and John Major requiring several blood transfusions due to an infection, causing permanent scarring to his ankles.[9][10] The Major family (John, his parents, and his two older sibling Terry and Pat)[nb 1] lived at 260 Longfellow Road, Worcester Park, Surrey, a middle-class area where Major's father ran a garden ornaments business and his mother worked in a local library and as a part-time dance teacher.[9] John Major later described the family's circumstances at this time as being "comfortable but not well off."[12] Following a German V-1 flying bomb attack in the area in 1944 which killed several people, the Majors moved to the village of Saham Toney, Norfolk for the duration of the war.[9][10]

John began attending primary school at Cheam Common School from 1948.[13][14] His childhood was generally happy, and he enjoyed reading, sports (especially cricket and football) and keeping pets, such as his rabbits.[15][16] In 1954 John passed the 11+ exam, enabling him to go to Rutlish School, a grammar school in Wimbledon, though to John's chagrin his father insisted that he register as 'John Major-Ball'.[17][18] The family's fortunes took a turn for the worse, with his father's health deteriorating,[nb 2] and the business in severe financial difficulties.[20] A recalled business loan which the family were unable to repay forced Tom Major to sell the house in Worcester Park in May 1955, with the family moving to a cramped, rented top-floor flat at 144 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton.[21][22][nb 3] With his parents distracted by their reduced circumstances, John Major's difficulties at Rutlish went unnoticed; acutely conscious of his straitened circumstances vis-à-vis the other pupils, Major was something of a loner and consistently under-performed (except in sports), coming to see the school as "a penance to be endured."[24][25] Major left school just before his 16th birthday in 1959 with just three O-level passes in History, English Language and English Literature, to his parents disappointment.[26][27][nb 4]

Major's interest in politics stems from this period, and he avidly kept up with current affairs by reading newspapers on his long commutes from Brixton to Wimbledon.[29] In 1956 Major met local MP Marcus Lipton at a local church fair and was invited to watch his first debate in the House of Commons, where Harold Macmillan presented his only Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer.[30][31] Major has attributed his political ambitions to this event.[8][32]

Early post-school career (1959–1979)[edit]

Major's first job was as a clerk in the London-based insurance brokerage firm Price Forbes in 1959, though finding the job dull and offering no prospects he quit.[33][34] Major began working with his brother Terry at the garden ornaments business; this had been sold in 1959, enabling the family to move to a larger residence at 80 Burton Road, Brixton.[35][36] Major's father died on 17 March 1962.[37][36] John left the ornaments business the following year to care for his ill mother, though when she got better he was unable to find a new job and was unemployed for much of the latter half of 1962, a situation he says was "degrading."[36] After Major became Prime Minister, it was misreported that his failure to get a job as a bus conductor resulted from his failing to pass a maths test; he had in fact passed all of the necessary tests but had been passed over owing to his height.[38][36] In the meantime he studied for a qualification in Banking via correspondence course.[39][40] Eventually in December 1962 he found a job working at the London Electricity Board (LEB) in Elephant and Castle.[38][36]

In 1959 Major had joined the Young Conservatives in Brixton and soon became a highly active member, which helped increase his confidence following the failure of his school days.[41][42] Encouraged by fellow Conservative Derek Stone, he started giving speeches on a soap-box in Brixton Market.[43][36] According to his biographer Anthony Seldon, Major brought "youthful exuberance" to the Tories in Brixton, but was sometimes in trouble with the professional agent Marion Standing.[42] Major stood as a Councillor in the 1964 Lambeth London Borough Council election for Larkhall ward at the age of 21 in 1964, losing to Labour.[44][40] He also assisted local Conservative candidates Kenneth Payne in the 1964 general election and Piers Dixon in the 1966 general election.[44][45] Another formative influence on Major in this period was Jean Kierans, a divorcée 13 years his elder with two children who lived opposite the family on Burton Road, who became his mentor and lover. Seldon writes "She ... made Major smarten his appearance, groomed him politically, and made him more ambitious and worldly."[40] Major later moved in the Kierans when his family left Burton Road in 1965;[46][45] their relationship lasted from 1963 to sometime after 1968.[47]

St Matthew's Church, Brixton where John and Norma Major married in 1970

Major left the LEB and took up a post at District Bank in May 1965,[48][40] though he soon left this to join Standard Bank the following year, largely because the latter offered the chance to work abroad.[46] In December 1966 he was sent for a long secondment in Jos, Nigeria which he enjoyed immensely, though he was put off by the casual racism of some of the ex-pat workers there.[49] In May 1967 he was involved in a serious car crash in which he broke a leg and had to be flown home.[50][51] Leaving hospital, he split his time between Jean Kierans' house and a small rented flat in Mayfair, working at Standard Bank's London office and resuming his banking diploma and activities with the Young Conservatives in his spare time.[52][53]

Major stood again as Councillor in the 1968 Lambeth London Borough Council election, this time for Ferndale ward. Though a Labour stronghold, the Conservatives received a huge boost following Enoch Powell's anti-immigration 'Rivers of Blood speech' in April 1968 and Major won, despite strongly disapproving of Powell's views.[54][55] Major took a major interest in housing matters, with Lambeth notorious for overcrowding and poor quality rented accommodation. In February 1970 Major became Chairman of the Housing Committee, being responsible for overseeing the building of several large council estates.[56][57][nb 5] He also promoted more openness at the council, initiating a series of public meetings with local residents.[59][60] Major also undertook fact-finding trips to the Netherlands, Finland and the Soviet Union.[61][62] Despite the Lambeth housing team being well-regarded nationally, Major lost his seat in the 1971 Lambeth London Borough Council election.[63]

Major met Norma Johnson at a Conservative party event in Brixton in April 1970, and the two became engaged shortly thereafter, marrying at St Matthew's Church in Brixton on 3 October 1970.[64][65] John's mother died shortly before in September at the age of 65.[66][67][68] John and Norma moved into a flat at Primrose Court, Streatham, which John had bought in 1969,[69] and had their first child, Elizabeth, in November 1971.[70][71] In 1974 the couple moved to a larger residence at West Oak, Beckenham, and had a second child, James, in January 1975.[72] Meanwhile Major continued to work at Standard Bank (renamed Standard Chartered from 1975), having completed his banking diploma in 1972.[73][74] Major was promoted to head of the PR department in August 1976, and his duties necessitated the occasional foreign trip to East Asia.[75]

Despite his setback at the 1971 Lambeth Council election, Major continued to nurse political ambitions, and with help from friends in the Conservative Party managed to get onto the Conservative Central Office's list of potential MP candidates.[73][76] Major was selected as the Conservative candidate for the Labour-dominated St Pancras North constituency, fighting both the February and October 1974 general elections, losing heavily both times to Labour's Albert Stallard.[77][78] Major attempted to get selected as a candidate for a more promising seat, though despite numerous attempts was unsuccessful.[79][80] Growing increasingly frustrated, Major resolved to make one last attempt, applying for selection to the safe Conservative seat of Huntingdonshire in December 1976, which he won.[81][82] Major was in some ways an odd choice, being a born-and-bred Londoner in a largely rural constituency still home to many landed families, however he was seen as being the most likely to win-over the increasingly large numbers of upwardly mobile London over-spill families living in the area, and he was helped to familiarise himself with the area by local MP David Renton.[83][84] In 1977 the Major family purchased a house at De Vere Close in the village of Hemingford Grey.[81][85] Major took on a less demanding job at Standard Chartered, and started working part-time in 1978 so that he could devote more time to his constituency duties.[85]

Early Parliamentary career (1979–1987)[edit]

Major won the Huntingdon seat by a large margin in the 1979 general election, which bought Margaret Thatcher to power.[86] He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 13 June 1979, voicing his support for the government's budget.[87][88][89] Major assiduously courted contacts at all levels of the party in this period, joining the informal 'Guy Fawkes club' of Conservative MPs and attending various Committees.[90][91] He became Secretary of the Environment Committee and also assisted with work on the Housing Act 1980, which allowed council house tenants the right to buy their homes.[92] Seeking to gain more exposure to foreign affairs, he joined several Labour Party MPs on a fact-finding trip to the Middle East in April 1982. The group met with King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Lebanon; in Israel they were briefly caught in the middle of a shooting incident between Israeli troops and a Palestinian rock-thrower.[93][94]

A demonstration at RAF Molesworth in the early 1980s

Major's first promotion came when he was appointed as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in January 1981 to Patrick Mayhew and Timothy Raison, both Ministers of State at the Home Office.[95] He later became an assistant whip in January 1983, responsible for East Anglian MPs.[96][97] During this period Major became also involved in the response to protests at RAF Molesworth, which lay in his constituency; various peace groups were opposed to the siting of cruise missiles at the base and had established a permanent 'peace camp' there.[98][99] The protesters were later evicted and an electric fence installed around the base in early 1985.[100]

Major comfortably won re-election to the now slightly enlarged seat of Huntingdon at the 1983 general election.[101][102] Shortly thereafter he and Norma moved to a larger house (Finings) in Great Stukeley; Major generally spent his weekends there, and weekdays at a rented flat in Durand Gardens, Stockwell.[103] Major was invited to join the prestigious 'Blue Chip' group of rising stars in the Conservative Party,[104] and he was promoted to Treasury Whip in October 1984.[105][106] It was later revealed (in 2002) that during this period Major had conducted an affair with Edwina Currie, a Conservative backbencher and later Junior Health Minister; the affair ended in 1988.[107][108] Major narrowly avoided the IRA's Brighton hotel bombing in October 1984, having left the hotel only a few hours before the bomb went off.[109] Also in this period Major stood in for a Foreign Office minister on a trip to South America, visiting Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.[109]

In September 1985 he was made Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security, before being promoted to become Minister of State in the same department in September 1986.[110][111] The large size of the DHSS granted Ministers a greater degree of responsibility than in other departments,[nb 6] with Major assisting with work on the Social Security Act 1986 and improving provision for disabled people.[113][114] Major began to gain a bigger profile, giving his first speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 1986.[115][116] He first attracted major national media attention in January 1987 over cold weather payments to the elderly, when Britain was in the depths of a severe winter.[117][118] Amidst intense media criticism, Major discussed the issue with Margaret Thatcher and an increase in the payments were approved.[119][120]

In Cabinet (1987–1990)[edit]

Chief Secretary to the Treasury (June 1987-July 1989)[edit]

Following the June 1987 general election, in which Major retained his seat with an increased majority,[121][122] he was promoted to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, making him the first MP of the 1979 intake to be thus appointed.[123][124][nb 7] The then-Chancellor Nigel Lawson generally made major decisions with little input from others, and Major was put in charge of agreeing departmental budgets with the Secretaries of State.[126] These discussions went well, and for the first time in several years budgets were agreed without recourse to the external adjudication of the 'Star Chamber'.[127][128] Major successfully concluded a second round of such spending reviews in July 1988.[129][130]

Whilst Chief Secretary Major took part in discussions over the future funding of the NHS, against the background of an NHS strike in February 1988 over pay, resulting in the 'Working for Patients' white paper and subsequent National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990.[131][132] Major also insisted in discussions with no Thatcher that government assistance should be provided to support the sale of Short Brothers to Bombadier, an aerospace company and major employer in Northern Ireland which might otherwise have collapsed.[133][134]

Foreign Secretary (July–October 1989)[edit]

In 1987-88 it became clear that Major had become a 'favourite' of Margaret Thatcher and was widely tipped for further promotion.[135] Nevertheless, Major's appointment to Foreign Secretary in July 1989 came as a surprise due to Major's relative lack of experience in the Cabinet and unfamiliarity with international affairs.[136][137] Major found the prospect daunting, and unsuccessfully attempted to convince Thatcher to allow him to stay on at the Treasury.[136] There were also fears within the Foreign Office (FCO) that Major would be Thatcher's 'hatchet-man', as her relations with the department under Geoffrey Howe were poor and characterised by mutual distrust.[138] Major accepted the job and began to settle into the department, living in an upstairs room at the FCO and devolving decision making where necessary, though he found the increased security burdensome and disliked the extensive ceremonial aspects of the role.[139][140]

Amongst Major's first acts as Foreign Secretary was to cancel the sale of Hawk aircraft to Iraq, over concerns they would be used for internal repression.[141][142] He represented Britain at the Paris Peace Conference to determine the future of Cambodia.[143] Major also met with US Secretary of State James Baker, where they primarily discussed the issue of Vietnamese boat people, and with Qian Qichen, Foreign Minister of China, becoming the first senior Western politician to meet with a Chinese official since the violent crackdown of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square the previous month.[144][145] Discussions focused primarily on the future of Hong Kong, which Britain was scheduled to hand over to China in 1997.[142]

Major spent most of a summer holiday that year in Spain conducting extensive background reading on foreign affairs and British foreign policy.[146][147] Upon his return to the UK he and Thatcher met with French president François Mitterrand, in which the future direction of the European Community was discussed.[148] In September 1989 Major delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, in which he pledged to support Colombia's effort to tackle the drugs trade and reiterated Britain's opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa.[149][150] Major also met US President George HW Bush in Washington, DC[151] and Domingo Cavallo, the Argentine Foreign Minister, the first such meeting since the end of the Falklands War seven years earlier.[152][142]

Major's last major summit as Foreign Secretary was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malaysia. The meeting was dominated by the issue of sanctions on South Africa, with Britain being the only country to oppose them, on the grounds that they would end up hurting poorer South Africans far more than the apartheid regime at which they were aimed.[153][154] The summit ended acrimoniously, with Thatcher controversially and against established precedent issuing a second final communiqué stating Britain's opposition to sanctions, with the press seizing on the apparent disagreement on the matter between Major and Thatcher.[155][154]

Chancellor of the Exchequer (October 1989 - November 1990)[edit]

After just three months as Foreign Secretary Major was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer on 26 October 1989 after the sudden resignation of Nigel Lawson, who had fallen out with Thatcher over what he saw as her excessive reliance on the advice of her Economic Adviser Alan Walters.[156][157][158][nb 8] The appointment meant that, despite only being in the Cabinet for a little over two years, Major had gone from the most junior position in the Cabinet to holding two of the Great Offices of State. Major made tackling inflation a priority, stating that tough measures were needed to bring it down and that "if it isn't hurting, it isn't working."[160] He delivered his first Autumn Statement on 15 November, announcing a boost in spending (mainly for the NHS) and with interest rates to be kept as they were.[161][162]

As Chancellor, Major presented only one Budget, the first to be televised live, on 20 March 1990.[163] He publicised it as a 'budget for savers', with the creations of the Tax-Exempt Special Savings Account (TESSA), arguing that measures were required to address the marked fall in the household savings ratio that had been apparent during the previous financial year. Major also abolished the composite rate tax and stamp duty on share trades, whilst increasing taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and petrol.[164][165] Tax cuts were also made which benefited football associations, the aim being to increase funding on safety measures following the Bradford City stadium fire and Hillsborough disaster.[166][163] Extra funding was also made available to Scotland in order to limit the impact of the Community Charge (widely dubbed the 'Poll Tax') which had been introduced there that year.[167][163]

The European Community's push for full Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) was another important factor in Major's time as Chancellor; in June 1990 he proposed that instead of a single European currency there could be a could be a 'hard ECU',[nb 9] which different national currencies could compete against and, if the ECU was successful, could lead to a single currency.[169][170] The move was seen as a wrecking tactic by France and Germany, especially when the increasingly Euro-sceptic Thatcher announced her outright opposition to EMU, and the idea was abandoned.[171] More successfully, Major managed to get the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) located in London.[172][173]

By early 1990 Major had become convinced that the best way to combat inflation and restore macroeconomic stability would be if the British pound were to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), and he and Douglas Hurd (Major's successor as Foreign Secretary) set about trying to convince a reluctant Thatcher to join it.[174][175][176] The move was supported by the Bank of England, the Treasury, most of the Cabinet, the Labour Party, several major business associations and much of the press.[177] With the 'Lawson Boom' showing signs of running out of steam, exacerbated by rising oil prices following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, there were fears of a potential recession and pressure to cut interest rates.[178][179] Thatcher finally agreed on 4 October, and Britain's entry into the ERM at a rate of DM 2.95 to £1.00 (with an agreed 6% floating 'band' either side) was announced the following day.[180][181] An interest rate cut of 1% (from 15%) was also announced on the same day.[182][179]

The rest of Major's Chancellorship prior to the leadership contest was largely uneventful; he considered granting the Bank of England operational independence over monetary policy, with the ability to set interest rate, but decided against it.[183][nb 10] He also agreed a restructuring and write-off of some Third World debt at a Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in September 1990.[185]

Conservative Party leadership contest (November 1990)[edit]

Anti-Poll Tax riots in London, March 1990

Opposition within the Conservative Party to Margaret Thatcher had been brewing for some time, focusing on what was seen as her brusque, imperious style and the Poll Tax, which was facing serious opposition across the country. In December 1989 she had survived a leadership bid by Anthony Meyer; though winning easily, 60 MPs had voted for Meyer, and it was rumoured that many more had to be strong-armed into supporting her.[186][187][188] By early 1990 it was clear that bills for many under the new Poll Tax regime would be higher than anticipated, and opposition to the Tax grew, with a non-payment campaign gaining much support and an anti-Poll Tax demonstration in Trafalgar Square in March ending in rioting.[189] The Conservatives lost the 1990 Mid Staffordshire by-election to Labour and the 1990 Eastbourne by-election to the Liberal Democrats, both Conservative seats, causing many Conservative MPs to worry about their prospects at the upcoming general election, due in 1991 or 1992.[190][191][192] Thatcher's staunch anti-European stance also alienated pro-Europe Conservatives.[193][179] On 1 November the pro-European Geoffrey Howe resigned, issuing a fiercely critical broadside against Thatcher in the House of Commons on 13 November.[194][195][196]

The day after Howe's speech Michael Heseltine, Thatcher's former Secretary of State for Defence who had acrimoniously resigned in 1986 over the Westland affair, challenged Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party.[197][196] Both John Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd supported Thatcher in the first round. Major was at home in Huntingdon recovering from a pre-arranged wisdom tooth operation during the first leadership ballot, which Thatcher won but not by the required threshold, necessitating a second round.[198][199] After discussions with her cabinet, in which many stated that though supporting her they doubted she could win, Thatcher announced her resignation as Prime Minister and Conservative Leader.[200] Major subsequently announced on 22 November that he would stand in the second ballot, with Thatcher's backing.[201][202] Major's platform was one of moderation on Europe, a review of the Poll Tax and the desire to build a 'classless society'.[203][204]

Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case 186 of 372 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Hurd and Heseltine to secure their immediate withdrawal.[205][206] With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day.[207][208][209] At 47 he was the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Rosebery some 95 years earlier.[210]

Prime Minister (1990–1997)[edit]

Major PM full.jpg
Premiership of John Major
28 November 1990 – 2 May 1997
PremierJohn Major
Cabinet1st Major ministry
2nd Major ministry
AppointerElizabeth II
Seat10 Downing Street
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (HM Government).svg
Royal Arms of the Government
Major with President George H. W. Bush at Camp David in 1992
Major with President Bill Clinton at the White House Solarium in 1994

1992 election[edit]

The UK economy entered a recession during 1990, which deepened in 1991, with unemployment rising rapidly. The Conservatives had been consistently behind Labour in the opinion polls since 1989, and the gap had widened significantly during 1990. Within two months of Major becoming Prime Minister, Major was required to lead Britain through the first Gulf War, playing a key role in persuading US President George H. W. Bush to support no-fly zones. During this period, Major and his Cabinet survived an IRA assassination attempt by mortar attack. The Conservatives managed to regain a lead in the opinion polls after this period, with polls also showing Major as the most popular Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan in the early 1960s.[211]

In spite of Labour Leader Neil Kinnock's repeated calls for an immediate general election after Major became Prime Minister, it wasn't until March 1992 that Major called an election for 9 April. Major took his campaign onto the streets, delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as he had done in his days on Lambeth Council. This approach stood in contrast to the Labour Party's seemingly slicker campaign and it chimed with the electorate, along with hard-hitting negative campaign advertising focusing on the issue of Labour's approach to taxation. During the campaign, both parties were either tied or within one point of each other in opinion polls, leading to uncertainty over who would win – or whether there would be an outright election winner at all. On the night of the election, exit polls indicated a very slim Labour lead, which most observers predicted would translate into either a hung parliament or a small Labour majority, with Major's best hope of retaining power being with the Tories remaining in government as a minority government or as part of a coalition.[212]

Despite these predictions, the Conservatives won the election outright, gaining in excess of 14 million votes, the highest popular vote ever recorded by a British political party in a general election to date. Although this translated into a much-reduced majority of 21 seats in the House of Commons (down from a majority of 102 seats at the previous election), this was enough for Major to return as Prime Minister elected in his own right and give the Conservatives their fourth consecutive victory, although the relatively small majority would go on to cause problems for Major throughout his second term.

Major's Brixton roots were used in a campaign poster during the Conservative Party's 1992 election campaign: "What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister."[213]

Black Wednesday[edit]

Major's second honeymoon as Prime Minister following his election victory did not last long. On 16 September 1992, the UK was forced to exit the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in difficult circumstances, in a day which would come to be known as "Black Wednesday", with billions of pounds wasted in a futile attempt to defend the value of sterling. The upheaval caused by the day's events was such that Major came close to resigning as Prime Minister, preparing an unsent letter of resignation addressed to the Queen.[214][215]

Although Major continued to defend Britain's membership of the ERM, stating that "the ERM was the medicine to cure the ailment, but it was not the ailment", the disaster of Black Wednesday left the Government's economic credibility irreparably damaged.[216] Major kept his economic team unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before eventually sacking Norman Lamont as Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing him with Kenneth Clarke. This came after months of press criticism of Lamont during his 1993 budget and a heavy defeat at a by-election in Newbury. His delay in sacking Lamont was exploited by Major's critics both inside and outside of his party, who used it to claim Major was too indecisive. Immediately after Black Wednesday, the Conservatives fell far behind Labour in the opinion polls and Major would never be able to regain the lead for the rest of his time as Prime Minister, being trounced in local council elections and the European Parliament elections on the way, as well as suffering a string of by-election defeats which gradually wiped out the Conservative majority.[217]

Within a year of his triumphant election victory, public opinion on Major plummeted, with Black Wednesday, mine closures, the Maastricht dispute and high unemployment being cited as four key areas of dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister. Newspapers which traditionally supported the Conservatives and had championed Major at the election were now being severely critical of him almost daily.[218] The UK's forced withdrawal from the ERM was succeeded by a partial economic recovery with a new policy of flexible exchange rates, allowing lower interest rates and devaluation, thereby increasing demand for UK goods in export markets. The recession that had started shortly before Major became Prime Minister was declared over in April 1993, when the economy grew by 0.2%. Unemployment also started to fall; it had stood at nearly 3 million by the end of 1992, but by the spring of 1997 it had fallen to 1.7 million.[219][220]


On becoming Prime Minister, Major had promised to keep Britain "at the very heart of Europe", and claimed to have won "game, set and match for Britain" – by negotiating the Social Chapter and Single Currency opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty, and by ensuring that there was no overt mention of a "Federal" Europe and that foreign and defence policy were kept as matters of inter-governmental co-operation, in separate "pillars" from the supranational European Union. By 2010 some of these concessions, although not Britain's non-membership of the Single Currency, had been overtaken by subsequent events.

Even these moves towards greater European integration met with vehement opposition from the Eurosceptic wing of Major's party and his Cabinet, as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty in the first half of 1993. Although Labour supported the treaty, they tactically opposed certain provisions of the Treaty to exploit divisions in the Government. This opposition included passing an amendment that required a vote on the Social Chapter aspects of the Treaty before it could be ratified. On 22 July 1993, several Conservative MPs, known as the Maastricht Rebels, voted against the Treaty, and the Government was defeated. Major called another vote on the following day, which he declared as a vote of confidence. He won the vote but the damage had been done to his authority in Parliament.

Later that day, Major gave an interview to ITN's Michael Brunson. During an unguarded moment when Major thought that the microphones had been switched off, Brunson asked why he did not sack the ministers who were conspiring against him. He replied: "Just think it through from my perspective. You are the Prime Minister, with a majority of 18 ... where do you think most of the poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. Do we want three more of the bastards out there? What's Lyndon B. Johnson's maxim?"[221] Major later said that he had picked the number three from the air and that he was referring to "former ministers who had left the government and begun to create havoc with their anti-European activities",[222] but many journalists suggested that the three were Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, three of the more prominent "Eurosceptics" within his Cabinet.[223] Throughout the rest of Major's time as Prime Minister the exact identity of the three was blurred, with John Redwood's name frequently appearing in a list along with two of the others. The tape of this conversation was leaked to the Daily Mirror and widely reported, embarrassing Major.

By April 1993, a mere 12 months after his general election triumph, John Major's popularity as Prime Minister had slumped. As well as his party's dismal showings in the opinion polls, Major's own personal ratings in opinion polls were similarly low. He was now being reviled on an almost daily basis by newspapers whose support the Conservatives had once appeared to have taken for granted. Critics from all corners were also criticising his 'consensus' approach to politics, which contrasted sharply to the confrontational approach of Margaret Thatcher – while others were keen to point out that Major's conciliatory approach to the job was something that many observers had been hoping for when Thatcher left office in 1990. Comparisons were being drawn up with an earlier Conservative prime minister, Anthony Eden – who had risen through the ranks as a highly respected government minister before becoming prime minister, only to be seen as a disappointment after he did take over.

Arguments continued over Europe. Early in 1994 Major vetoed the Belgian politician Jean-Luc Dehaene to succeed Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission for being excessively federalist, only to find that he had to accept a Luxembourg politician of similar views, Jacques Santer, instead. Around this time Major – who in an unfortunate phrase denounced the Labour Leader John Smith as "Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels" – tried to demand an increase in the Qualified Majority needed for voting in the newly enlarged European Union (i.e. making it easier for Britain, in alliance with other countries, to block federalist measures). After Major had to back down on this issue Tony Marlow called openly in the House of Commons for his resignation. In 1996 European governments banned British beef over claims that it was infected with mad cow disease – the British government withheld co-operation with the EU over the issue, but did not succeed in getting the ban lifted, only a timetable of lifting it. The conflict has been named the Beef war. By April 2013, vCJD – the human form of the disease – had killed 280 people (176 of them in Britain).

For the rest of Major's premiership the main argument was over whether Britain would join the planned European Single Currency. Some leading Conservatives, including Chancellor Ken Clarke, favoured joining and insisted that Britain retain a completely free choice, whilst increasing numbers of others expressed their reluctance to join. By this time billionaire Sir James Goldsmith had set up his own Referendum Party, siphoning off some Conservative support, and at the 1997 General Election many Conservative candidates were openly expressing reluctance to join.


Major's premiership saw the ongoing war in Bosnia. Government policy was to maintain the United Nations arms embargo which restricted the flow of weapons into the region and to oppose airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs. The Government's reasoning was that an arms embargo would only create a "level killing field" and that airstrikes would endanger UN peacekeepers and the humanitarian aid effort. This policy was criticised by Thatcher and others who saw the Bosnian Muslims as the main victims of Serb aggression and compared the situation to events in the Second World War. The Clinton administration, by contrast, was committed to a policy of "lift and strike" (lifting the arms embargo and inflicting airstrikes on the Serbs) causing tensions in the "special relationship" (Douglas Hurd and others strongly opposed this policy).

A Westland Sea King helicopter carrying Major above the Ilidza Compound in Sarajevo, Bosnia, during Operation Joint Endeavor in 1996.

Some commentators compared the Major Government's policy to "amoral equivalency" because it appeared to judge the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Serbs equally culpable.[224] To some extent, these critics of Major's policy were later vindicated when, in an article published in 2011, the then-Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind accepted that the arms embargo was a "serious mistake" by the UN.[225]

Northern Ireland[edit]

Major opened talks with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) upon taking office. When he declared to the House of Commons in November 1993 that "to sit down and talk with Mr Adams and the Provisional IRA ... would turn my stomach",[226] Sinn Féin gave the media an outline of the secret talks indeed held regularly since that February. The Downing Street Declaration was issued on 15 December 1993 by Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach, with whom he had a friendly relationship: an IRA ceasefire followed in 1994. In the House of Commons, Major refused to sign up to the first draft of the "Mitchell Principles", which resulted in the ending of the ceasefire. Major paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the 'Belfast Agreement', which was signed after he left office.[227] In March 1995, Major refused to answer the phone calls of United States President Bill Clinton for several days because of his anger at Clinton's decision to invite Gerry Adams to the White House for St Patrick's Day.[228]


From 1994 to 1997, Major privatised British Rail, splitting it up into franchises to be run by the private sector.[229] The process was controversial at the time, and the effect of privatising the railway is still disputed, with large growth in passenger numbers and increasing fiscal efficiency matched by large public subsidy[230][231] high ticket prices and concern about foreign companies running British railways.[232]


At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major began the "Back to Basics" campaign, which he intended to also be about a wide variety of issues including the economy, education and policing, but which was interpreted by many (including Conservative cabinet ministers) purely in the context of returning to the moral and family values that they associated with the Conservative Party.[233]

Instead of being well received, "Back to Basics" instead became synonymous with scandal, often exposed in lurid and embarrassing detail by tabloid newspapers such as The Sun. In 1992, David Mellor, a cabinet minister, had been exposed as having an extramarital affair and for accepting hospitality from the daughter of a leading member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.[234] The wife of Lord Caithness committed suicide amongst rumours of the peer committing adultery.[235] Stephen Milligan was found dead having apparently auto-asphyxiated whilst performing a solitary sex act (his Eastleigh seat was lost in what was to be an ongoing stream of heavy by-election defeats).[236] David Ashby was "outed" by his wife after sleeping with men.[235] A string of other Conservative MPs, including Alan Amos, Tim Yeo, and Michael Brown, were involved in sexual scandals.[237]

Other debilitating scandals included "Arms to Iraq" – the ongoing inquiry into how government ministers including Alan Clark (also involved in an unrelated scandal involving the revelation of his affair with the wife and both daughters of a South African judge) had encouraged businesses to supply arms to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, in breach of the official arms embargo, and how senior ministers had, on legal advice, attempted to withhold evidence of this official connivance when directors of Matrix Churchill were put on trial for breaking the embargo.[238]

Another scandal was "Cash for Questions", in which first Graham Riddick, and David Tredinnick accepted money to ask questions in the House of Commons in a newspaper "sting", and later Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were found to have received money from Mohamed Al-Fayed, also to ask questions in the House. Later, David Willetts resigned as Paymaster General after he was accused of rigging evidence to do with Cash for Questions.[239]

Defence Minister Jonathan Aitken was accused by the ITV investigative journalism series World in Action and The Guardian newspaper of secretly doing deals with leading Saudi princes. He denied all accusations and promised to wield the "sword of truth" in libel proceedings which he brought against The Guardian and the producers of World in Action Granada Television. At an early stage in the trial, it became apparent that he had lied under oath, and he was subsequently (after the Major government had fallen from power) convicted of perjury and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.[240]

Major attempted to draw some of the sting from the financial scandals by setting up public inquiries – the Nolan Report into standards expected in public life, and the Scott Report into the Arms to Iraq Scandal.[241]

Although Tim Smith stepped down from the House of Commons at the 1997 general election, both Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken sought re-election for their seats, and were both defeated, in Hamilton's case by the former BBC Reporter Martin Bell, who stood as an anti-sleaze candidate, both the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates withdrawing in his favour, amidst further publicity unfavourable to the Conservatives.[242]

Major later commented in his memoirs on the "routine" with which he would be telephoned over the weekend to be warned of the latest embarrassing story due to break. He wrote that he took a stern line against financial impropriety, but was angered at the way in which a host of scandals, many of them petty sexual misdemeanours by a small number of MPs, were exploited by the press and Opposition for political advantage. He also conceded that the issue "fed the public belief that the Conservative(s) ... had been in government too long, and had got into bad habits" and quoted Labour's claim in 1997: "Nothing better encapsulates what people think of this government. Sleaze will be one of the things which brings this government down."[243]

Leadership crisis[edit]

On 22 June 1995, tired of continual threats of leadership challenges that never arose, Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and announced he would contest the resulting leadership election – he continued to serve as Prime Minister while the leadership was vacant, but would have resigned had he not been re-elected by a large enough majority. John Redwood resigned as Secretary of State for Wales to stand against him. Major won by 218 votes to Redwood's 89, with 12 spoiled ballots, eight 'active' abstentions and two MPs abstaining, enough to easily win in the first round. The amount was three more than the target he had privately set himself, having earlier resolved to resign if he could not carry the support of at least 215 of his MPs, the two-thirds threshold of his own parliamentary party.[244]

The Sun newspaper, still at this stage supporting the Conservative Party, had lost faith in Major and declared its support for Redwood in the leadership election, running the front-page headline "Redwood versus Deadwood".[245]

1997 election and resignation[edit]

Major's comfortable re-election as Conservative Leader failed to restore his authority. Despite efforts to improve the popularity of the Conservative Party, Labour remained far ahead in the opinion polls as the election loomed, despite the economic boom that had followed the exit from recession four years earlier, and the swift fall in unemployment. By-election losses and defections meant that in December 1996, the Conservatives had lost their majority in the House of Commons. Major managed to survive to the end of the Parliament, leading what had effectively become a minority government, and called an election on 17 March 1997 as the five-year limit for its timing approached. Major had deliberately delayed the election until close to the last possible moment in the hope that a still-improving economy would help the Conservatives hold a greater number of seats, and that voters would be deterred from Labour by exposing the party's policies with slogans like "New Labour, New Danger". He was also accused by the opposition of proroguing Parliament earlier than usual for political purposes, to delay the publication of a report into the "Cash for Questions" scandal.[246]

Unfortunately for Major, his attempts to win public support and swing the election in favour of the Tories did not work. Even The Sun newspaper, which had championed the Conservatives five years earlier and claimed to have won the 1992 general election for the party, declared its support for Tony Blair's "New Labour", condemning the Tories as "tired, divided and rudderless".[citation needed]

On 1 May 1997, the Conservative Party suffered the worst electoral defeat by a ruling party since the Reform Act 1832. In the new Parliament, Labour held 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, giving Labour a majority of 179; it was the lowest number of Conservative seats in Parliament for over a century, and the new political landscape appeared likely to guarantee Labour at least two successive parliamentary terms in government. Major himself was re-elected in his own constituency of Huntingdon with a reduced majority of 18,140, but 133 other Conservative MPs were defeated, including present and former Cabinet Ministers such as Norman Lamont, Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo. The huge election defeat also left the Conservatives without any MPs in Scotland or Wales for the first time in history. The party would not return to government until 2010, and did not win a parliamentary majority until 2015.

The following day Major travelled to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen of his resignation as Prime Minister. Shortly before this he had announced his intention to also resign as Conservative Leader, giving his final statement outside 10 Downing Street in which he said; "When the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage—and that is what I propose to do."[247] Major then announced to the press that he intended to go with his family to The Oval to watch Surrey play cricket.[248]

Final years in Parliament (1997–2001)[edit]

Although many Conservative MPs wanted Major to resign as leader immediately, there was a movement among the grassroots of the party, encouraged by his political allies, to have him stay on as leader until the autumn. Lord Cranborne, his Chief of Staff during the election, and the Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad, both pleaded with him to stay on: they argued that remaining as leader for a few months would give the party time to come to terms with the scale of defeat before electing a successor.[249] Major refused, saying: "It would be terrible, because I would be presiding with no authority over a number of candidates fighting for the crown. It would merely prolong the agony."[248]

Major served as Leader of the Opposition for seven weeks while the leadership election to replace him was underway. He formed a temporary Shadow Cabinet, but with seven of his Cabinet Ministers having lost their seats at the election, and with few senior MPs left to replace them, several MPs had to hold multiple briefs.[248][250] Major himself served as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and the office of Shadow Scotland Secretary was left vacant until after the 2001 general election as the party had no longer had any Scottish MPs.[248][250][251] Major's resignation as Conservative Leader formally took effect on 19 June 1997 after the election of William Hague.[252][253]

Major's Resignation Honours were announced on 1 August 1997.[254] He remained active in Parliament, regularly attending and contributing in debates.[255] He stood down from the House of Commons at the 2001 general election, having announced his retirement from Parliament on 10 March 2000.[256] Jonathan Djanogly took over as MP for Huntingdon, retaining the seat for the Conservatives at the 2001 election.[257]

Like some post-war former Prime Ministers (such as Edward Heath), Major turned down a peerage when he retired from the House of Commons in 2001. He said that he wanted a "firebreak from politics" and to focus on writing and his business, sporting and charity work.[258]

Post-Parliamentary life[edit]

Major (left) with the Queen in 2012

Since leaving office, Major has tended to maintain a low profile in the media, occasionally commentating on political developments in the manner of an elder statesman.[259] In 1999 he published his autobiography, covering his early life and time in office, which was generally well-received.[260][261] Major went on to write a book about the history of cricket in 2007 (More Than a Game: The Story of Cricket's Early Years)[262] and a book about music hall (My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall) in 2012.[263]

He has further indulged his love of cricket as President of Surrey County Cricket Club from 2000-01[264] (and Honorary Life Vice-President since 2002).[265] In March 2001 he gave the tribute to cricketer Colin Cowdrey at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey.[266] In 2005 he was elected to the Committee of the Marylebone Cricket Club, historically the governing body of the sport, and still guardian of the laws of the game. Major left the Committee in 2011, citing concerns with the planned redevelopment of Lord's Cricket Ground.[267][268]

John Major has also been actively engaged in charity work, being President of Asthma UK,[269] and a Patron of the Prostate Cancer Charity, Sightsavers UK, Mercy Ships, Support for Africa 2000[269] and Afghan Heroes.[270] In February 2012, Major became chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust,[271] which was formed as part of the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II and is intended to support charitable organisations and projects across the Commonwealth, focusing on areas such as cures for diseases and the promotion of culture and education.[271] Major was a Patron of the sight loss and learning disability charity SeeAbility from 2006-12 has been a vice-president since 2013.[272]

Major has also pursued a variety of business interests, taking up appointments as Senior Adviser to Credit Suisse,[273][274][275] Chairman of the Board of Senior Advisers at Global Infrastructure Partners,[269][274] Global Adviser to AECOM,[274] Chairman of the International Advisory Board of the National Bank of Kuwait,[269] and Chairman of the European Advisory Council of the Emerson Electric Company.[269][275][276] He was a member of the Carlyle Group's European Advisory Board from 1998 and was appointed Chairman of Carlyle Europe in May 2001.[277][278][279] He stood down from the Group circa 2004-05.[276][280] Major was also a director at the bus manufacturers the Mayflower Corporation from 2000–03, which was liquidated in 2004 due to funding issues.[281][275][282]

Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, Major was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry, with responsibility for legal and administrative matters.[283] As a result of this, Major was the only current or former Prime Minister out of the five then still alive invited to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018.[284] Major has also attended the funerals of notable political figures, such as Nelson Mandela in December 2013,[285] former US First Lady Barbara Bush at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas on 21 April 2018[286] and the state funeral of former US President George H. W. Bush on 5 December 2018.[287]

Revelation of affair[edit]

Major's low profile following his exit from parliament was disrupted by Edwina Currie's revelation in September 2002 that, prior to his promotion to the Cabinet, he had had a four-year extramarital affair with her from 1984-88.[288][289] Commentators were quick to refer to Major's previous 'Back to Basics' platform to throw charges of hypocrisy. An obituary of Tony Newton in The Daily Telegraph claimed that if Newton had not kept the affair a closely guarded secret "it is highly unlikely that Major would have become prime minister".[290]

In 1993 Major had also sued two magazines, New Statesman and Society and Scallywag, as well as their distributors, for reporting rumours of an affair with Clare Latimer, a Downing Street caterer, even though at least one of the magazines had said that the rumours were false. Both considered legal action to recover their costs when the affair with Currie was revealed.[291][291][292]

In a press statement, Major said that he was "ashamed" by the affair and that his wife had forgiven him. In response, Currie said "he wasn't ashamed of it at the time and he wanted it to continue."[293]

Political engagement[edit]

Major delivering a speech at Chatham House in 2010

Major has become an active after-dinner speaker, earning over £25,000 per engagement for his "insights and his own opinions" on politics and other matters according to his agency.[294] Major is also actively involved in various think tanks: he is currently a president of Chatham House,[269] a member of the International Advisory Boards of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel,[269] the InterAction Council,[269] the Baker Institute in Houston,[295] and a Patron of the Atlantic Partnership.[269][295] Major was also a Director with the Ditchley Foundation from 2000–09,[281][296] and a President of the influential centre-right think tank the Bow Group from 2012-14.[297]

In February 2005, it was reported that Major and Norman Lamont delayed the release of papers on Black Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act.[298] Major denied doing so, saying that he had not heard of the request until the scheduled release date and had merely asked to look at the papers himself.[299] He told BBC News that he and Lamont had been the victims of "whispering voices" to the press.[300] He later publicly approved the release of the papers.[301]

In December 2006, Major led calls for an independent inquiry into Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq, following revelations made by Carne Ross, a former British senior diplomat, that contradicted Blair's case for the invasion.[302]

He was touted as a possible Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London elections in 2008, but turned down an offer from Conservative leader David Cameron. A spokesperson for Major said "his political career is behind him".[303]

Following the 2010 general election Major announced his support for the Cameron–Clegg coalition, and stated that he hoped for a "liberal conservative" alliance beyond 2015, criticising Labour under Ed Miliband for playing "party games" rather than serving the national interest.[304][305] Nevertheless, in 2013 Major expressed his concern at the seeming decline in social mobility in Britain: "In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking."[306][307]

During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum Major strongly encouraged a 'no' vote, stating that a vote for independence would be damaging both for Scotland and the rest of the UK.[308][309]


Major was a vocal supporter for the Remain camp in the 2016 referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. John Major supported a second referendum over Brexit, stating that the leave campaign put out a "fantasy case" during the referendum campaign, adding that to describe a second vote as undemocratic was "a rather curious proposition" and that he could see no "intellectual argument" against redoing the ballot.[310] Major feared Brexit will make the UK poorer and could endanger the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.[311]

On 30 August 2019, it was announced that Major intended to join a court case by Gina Miller against the proroguing of Parliament by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.[312] In the 2019 general election Major urged voters to vote tactically against candidates supporting Boris Johnson when those candidates wanted a hard Brexit. Major said Brexit is, "the worst foreign policy decision in my lifetime. It will affect nearly every single aspect of our lives for many decades to come. It will make our country poorer and weaker. It will hurt most those who have least. Never have the stakes been higher, especially for the young. Brexit may even break up our historic United Kingdom."[313] In early 2020, after the UK formally left the EU with an initial deal, Major expressed his concerns about a future trading deal with the EU being "flimsy".[314]


Bust of Major by Shenda Amery in Huntingdon Library

Major's mild-mannered style and moderate political stance contrasted with that of Thatcher, and made him theoretically well-placed to act as a conciliatory and relatively uncontroversial leader of his party. In spite of this, conflict raged within the parliamentary Conservative Party, particularly over the extent of Britain's integration with the European Union. Major never succeeded in reconciling the "Euro-rebels" among his MPs to his European policy, who although relatively few in number, wielded great influence because of his small majority and their wider following among Conservative activists and voters. Episodes such as the Maastricht Rebellion led by Bill Cash and Margaret Thatcher inflicted serious political damage on him and his government. The additional bitterness on the right wing of the Conservative Party at the manner in which Margaret Thatcher had been deposed did not make Major's task any easier. A series of scandals among leading Conservative MPs also did Major and his government no favours. His task became even more difficult after the well-received election of Tony Blair as Labour leader in July 1994.[315]

Major defended his government in his memoirs, focusing particularly on how under him the British economy had recovered from the recession of 1990–1992. He wrote that, "During my premiership interest rates fell from 14% to 6%; unemployment was at 1.75 million when I took office, and at 1.6 million and falling upon my departure; and the government's annual borrowing rose from £0.5 billion to nearly £46 billion at its peak before falling to £1 billion".[316] Ken Clarke stated in 2016 that Major's reputation looked better as time went by, in the same way that Tony Blair's legacy appeared to be in decline.[317]

The former Labour MP Tony Banks said of Major in 1994 that, "He was a fairly competent Chairman of Housing on Lambeth Council. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking, 'What on earth is Councillor Major doing?' I can't believe he's here and sometimes I think he can't either."[318] Paddy Ashdown, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats during Major's term of office, once described him in the House of Commons as a "decent and honourable man". Few observers doubted that he was an honest man, or that he made sincere and sometimes successful attempts to improve life in Britain and to unite his deeply divided party. He was also perceived as a weak and ineffectual figure, and his approval ratings for most of his time in office were low, particularly after "Black Wednesday" in September 1992.[319] Conversely on occasions he attracted criticism for pursuing schemes favoured by the right of his party, notably the privatisation of British Rail.[320]

Writing in 2011 the BBC's Home editor Mark Easton judged that "Majorism" had made little lasting impact.[321] Peter Oborne, writing in 2012, asserts that Major's government looks ever more successful as time goes by.[322]

Representation in the media[edit]

Major in 2011

During his leadership of the Conservative Party, Major was portrayed as honest ("Honest John")[323][324] but unable to exert effective control over his fractious party. Major's appearance was noted for its greyness, his prodigious philtrum, and large glasses, all of which were exaggerated in caricatures. For example, in Spitting Image, Major's puppet was changed from a circus performer to that of a literally grey man who ate dinner with his wife in silence, occasionally saying "nice peas, dear", while at the same time nursing an unrequited crush on his colleague Virginia Bottomley – an invention, but an ironic one in view of his affair with Edwina Currie, which was not then a matter of public knowledge. By the end of his premiership his puppet would often be shown observing the latest fiasco and ineffectually murmuring "oh dear".[325]

The media (particularly The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell) used the allegation by Alastair Campbell that he had observed Major tucking his shirt into his underpants to caricature him wearing his pants outside his trousers,[326] as a pale grey echo of both Superman and Supermac, a parody of Harold Macmillan.[327][328] Bell also used the humorous possibilities of the Cones Hotline, a means for the public to inform the authorities of potentially unnecessary traffic cones, which was part of the Citizen's Charter project established by John Major. Major was also satirised by Patrick Wright with his book 101 Uses for a John Major (based on a comic book of some 10 years earlier called 101 Uses for a Dead Cat), in which Major was illustrated serving a number of bizarre purposes, such as a train-spotter's anorak or as a flag-pole;[329][330] Wright published a second collection of '101 Uses', as well as a parodic cartoon biography of Major entitled Not Inconsiderable: Being the Life and Times of John Major.[331]

Private Eye parodied Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13¾ to write The Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾, in which Major was portrayed as naïve and childish, keeping lists of his enemies in a Rymans Notebook called his "Bastards Book", and featuring "my wife Norman" and "Mr Dr Mawhinney" as recurring characters.[332][328] The magazine still runs one-off specials of this diary (with the age updated) on occasions when Major is in the news, such as on the breaking of the Edwina Currie story or the publication of his autobiography.

The impressionist comedian Rory Bremner often mocked John Major, for example depicting him as 'John 90', a play on 1960s puppet show Joe 90;[333][334] his impersonation was so accurate that he managed to fool the MP Richard Body that he was really speaking to Major in a prank phone call.[335] The incident prompted Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler to warn Channel 4 head Michael Grade against any further calls for fear that state secrets could be inadvertently leaked.[336]

Major was often mocked for his nostalgic evocation of what sounded like the lost Britain of the 1950s (see Merry England);[337] for example, his famous speech stating that "Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – 'old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist'."[338] Major complained in his memoirs that these words (which drew upon a passage in George Orwell's essay The Lion and the Unicorn)[339] had been misrepresented as being more naive and romantic than he had intended, and indeed his memoirs were dismissive of the common conservative viewpoint that there was once a time of moral rectitude; Major wrote that "life has never been as simple as that". Throughout his time in office Major was often acutely sensitive to criticism of him in the press; his biographer Anthony Seldon posits this to an inner vulnerability stemming from his difficult childhood and adolescence.[325] After leaving office, Major stated that "Perhaps up to a point I was too sensitive about some of the things in the press, I’m happy to concede that. But, the politicians who are said to have hides like rhinos and be utterly impervious to criticism, if they’re not extinct, they are very rare and I freely confess I wasn’t amongst them."[340]

Major has been depicted on screen by Keith Drinkel in Thatcher: The Final Days (1991),[341] Michael Maloney in Margaret (2009)[342] and Robin Kermode in The Iron Lady (2011).[342] Footage of Major's 1992 election win is used in Patrick Keiller's 1994 documentary film London.[343] Major was also one of the prime ministers portrayed in the 2013 stage play The Audience.[344] Less flatteringly, Major was the subject of the song John Major - Fuck You by Scottish punk band Oi Polloi.[345]

Personal life[edit]

a smiling, clean-shaven middle-aged white man with grey hair, wearing sunglasses
Major enjoying his retirement at a cricket match

Major married Norma Johnson (now Dame Norma Major) on 3 October 1970 at St Matthew's Church, Brixton.[346][64][65] She was a teacher and a member of the Young Conservatives. They met on polling day for the Greater London Council elections in London, and became engaged after only ten days.[347] They have two children: a daughter, Elizabeth (born November 1971)[70][71] and a son, James (b. January 1975).[72] John and Norma continue to live at their constituency home, Finings, in Great Stukeley, Huntingdonshire.[279] The couple also own a flat in London and a holiday home on the Norfolk coast at Weybourne, which they have in the past invited ex-soldiers to use for free as part of the Afghan Heroes charity.[279][270][348] As with all ex-Prime Ministers, Major is entitled to round-the-clock police protection.[349][350]

Elizabeth Major, a qualified veterinary nurse, married Luke Salter on 26 March 2000 at All Saints Church, Somerby, having been in a relationship with him since 1988.[351][352] Salter died on 22 November 2002 from cancer.[353] James Major, a former retail manager and nightclub promoter, married gameshow hostess Emma Noble on 29 March 1999 in the Chapel Crypt at Westminster Abbey.[352][354] The couple had a son, Harrison, born July 2000, who later diagnosed with autism.[355] The marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce in 2003, with Noble accusing Major of "unreasonable behaviour".[356] James later married Kate Postlethwaite (née Dorrell), the mother of his second son.

Major's elder brother, Terry, who died in 2007, became a minor media personality during Major's period in Downing Street, writing a 1994 autobiography, Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother and appearing on TV shows such as Have I Got News for You.[357][358] John's sister Patricia Dessoy kept a much lower profile; she died in 2017.[359] To his surprise, after leaving office Major discovered that his father had fathered two children extramaritally - Tom Moss and Kathleen Lemmon.[360][361][362]

Research conducted by Paul Penn-Simkins, a genealogist formerly employed as a researcher at the College of Arms and as a heraldic consultant at Christie's, and subsequently corroborated by Lynda Rippin, a genealogist employed by Lincolnshire Council, showed that John Major and Margaret Thatcher were fifth cousins once removed, both descending from the Crust family, who farmed at Leake, near Boston, Lincolnshire.[363][364][365][366][367]

Major has been keen on sports since his youth, most notably cricket;[368] he is also a supporter of Chelsea F.C.[369][370] and a Patron of British Gymnastics.[371] He also enjoys gardening, listening to music and reading, Anthony Trollope being amongst his favourite authors.[372][373] Major is a Christian, though his upbringing was never especially religious and he states that he is "a believer at a distance."[374] He shied away from the topic when in office, stating that "I have always been a little wary of politicians who parade their faith, and prefer a little English reserve on the subject."[375]


Major in the robes of the Order of the Garter

In the 1999 New Year Honours List, Major was made a Companion of Honour for his work on the Northern Ireland peace process.[376]

On 23 April 2005, Major was bestowed with a knighthood as a Companion of the Order of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth II. He was installed at St George's Chapel, Windsor on 13 June. Membership of the Order of the Garter is limited in number to 24, and as a personal gift of the Queen is an honour traditionally bestowed on former Prime Ministers.[377]

On 20 June 2008, Major was granted the Freedom of the City of Cork.[378][379] He was also granted the Outstanding Contribution to Ireland award in Dublin on 4 December 2014.[380][381]

On 8 May 2012, Major was personally decorated at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo by the Emperor of Japan with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his invaluable contributions to Japan–UK relations through his work in the political and economic arena, and also in promoting mutual understanding. While Prime Minister, Major had pursued energetic campaigns aimed at boosting bilateral trade: "Priority Japan" (1991–94) and "Action Japan" (1994–97). The 1991 Japan Festival also took place under his premiership.[382]


In 2008 Major won the British Sports Book Awards (Best Cricket Book) for More Than a Game: The Story of Cricket's Early Years.[383]

Public commemoration[edit]

Plaque on St Helier Hospital, Sutton
Plaque in Archbishop's Park, Lambeth
Two plaques commemorating John Major in South London

An oil painting of Major, painted in 1996 by June Mendoza, is part of the Parliamentary collection,[384][385] as is a bronze bust by Anne Curry, unveiled in the Members' Lobby on 16 October 2017.[386][387][388] There is another bust of Major in the Norman Shaw Building North by Neale Andrew, sculpted in 1993 and installed in 2004, however this is not accessible to the public.[389][390][391][392]

A large bust of John Major by Shenda Amery in Huntingdon Library was unveiled by his wife Norma in 1993.[393][394]

A painting of John Major by Diccon Swan is on display at the Carlton Club, and was unveiled by his wife Norma in 1994.[395] The National Portrait Gallery holds two paintings of Major - the first official portrait of him as Prime Minister, painted by Peter Deighan in 1994,[396][397] and one of John and Norma by John Wonnacott, painted in 1997.[398]

There is a large John Major Suite at The Oval, home to Surrey County Cricket Club; the venue also contains a painting of Major.[399]

There is a 'Heritage in Sutton' plaque on St Helier Hospital, where John Major was born in 1943,[400] and a plaque commemorating him in Lambeth Palace's Archbishop's Park, included as part of the Lambeth Millennium Pathway. There are also various plaques commemorating facilities opened by John Major: at Brampton Memorial Centre, Brampton (opened 1988),[401] Hamerton Zoo Park, Hamerton (1990),[402] Cadbury World, Birmingham (1991),[403] a tree commemorating the restoration of the River Mill pub, Eaton Socon,[404] the gardens at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon (2009),[405] the North Terminal extension at Gatwick Airport (2011),[406][407] Huntingdonshire Football Association headquarters, Huntingdon (2015),[408] and Alconbury Weald cricket pitch (2019).[409]

In 2013 the town of Candeleda in Spain named a street for John Major (Avenida de John Major), as Major has holidayed there for many years.[410][411] Major Close, in Loughborough Junction near where John grew up, is also named for him; the street was to be called 'Sir John Major Close', however this long name breached council guidelines.[412]


Coat of arms of Sir John Major
Coat of Arms of John Major.svg
A Demi-stag Gules attired and unguled Or langued Azure holding between its forelegs a double-warded Key Or wards ’M’ upwards and ribboned Gules Azure and Argent[413]
Chequy Vert and Azure over all a Portcullis Or in chief three Torteaux Gules[414]
Adeste comites (Rally round, comrades)
Other elements
Garter circlet and appended Companion of Honour insignia[415]
Garter Banner of Sir John Major.svg The banner of John Major's arms used as knight of the Garter at St George's Chapel.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John also had two other half-siblings from his father's affairs which he was not to learn of until much later.[11]
  2. ^ Tom Major had planned to move the family to Canada in his retirement, but his immigration application was rejected due to his failing eyesight.[19]
  3. ^ Major was later to learn that the flat was in fact owned by his half-brother Tom Moss.[23]
  4. ^ In the 1999 BBC documentary The Major Years, Major can be seen getting visibly upset when recalling this episode.[28]
  5. ^ Major was later to express regret for his support for large-scale tower block estates. In April 1992 Labour-run Lambeth Council rebuffed plans for a plaque commemorating Major in the borough, stating that there was already "sufficient monument to John Major in the form of the Stockwell Park and Moorlands Estates."[58]
  6. ^ The department was later split in two in 1988.[112]
  7. ^ Major was also appointed to the Privy Council at this time.[125]
  8. ^ Walters resigned soon after.[159]
  9. ^ The European Currency Unit was a notional unit of account based on a weighted 'basket' of major European currencies. It was replaced with the physical Euro currency in 1999.[168]
  10. ^ This was later enacted under Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown in 1998.[184]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Bruce (1991). John Major: The Making of the Prime Minister. Fourth Estate Classic House. ISBN 978-1872180540.
  • Bale, Tim; Sanders, Karen (2001). "'Playing by the Book': Success and Failure in John Major's Approach to Prime Ministerial Media Management". Contemporary British History. 15 (4): 93–110. doi:10.1080/713999434.
  • Bennett, Gillian (1996). "'Camera, Lights Action!': The British General Election 1992 as Narrative Event". Folklore. 107 (1–2): 94–97. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1996.9715921. ISSN 0015-587X.
  • Burnham, June; Jones, G. W.; Elgie, Robert (1995). "The Parliamentary Activity of John Major, 1990–94". British Journal of Political Science. 25 (4): 551–63. doi:10.1017/S0007123400007341.
  • Cowley, Philip; Garry, John (1998). "The British Conservative Party and Europe: the choosing of John Major". British Journal of Political Science. 28 (3): 473–99. doi:10.1017/S0007123498000350.
  • Dell, Edmund (1996). The Chancellors: A History of the Chancellors of the Exchequer, 1945–90. HarperCollins. pp. 541–50. ISBN 978-0002555586., covers his term as Chancellor.
  • Dorey, Peter, ed. (1999). The Major Premiership: Politics and Policies under John Major, 1990–97. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0333736814.
  • Ellis, Nesta Wyn (1991). John Major: A Personal Biography. Time Warner Books UK. ISBN 978-0356203041.
  • Foley, Michael (2003). John Major, Tony Blair & a Conflict of Leadership: Collision Course. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0719063169.
  • Hickson, Kevin; Williams, Ben (2017). John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister?: Reappraising John Major. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 978-1785900679.
  • Hogg, Sarah; Hill, Jonathan (1995). Too Close to Call: Power and Politics; John Major in No. 10. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0316877169.
  • Jones, Philip; Hudson, John (1996). "The Quality of Political Leadership: A case study of John Major". British Journal of Political Science. 26 (2): 229–44. doi:10.1017/S0007123400000430.
  • Junor, Penny (1996). John Major: From Brixton to Downing Street. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0140238747.
  • Kavanagh, Dennis; Seldon, Anthony, eds. (1994). The Major Effect: An Overview of John Major's Premiership. Pan Books, Ltd. ISBN 978-0333622735.
  • Pearce, Edward (1991). The Quiet Rise of John Major. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0297812081.
  • Reitan, Earl A. (2002). The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 978-0742522022.
  • Seldon, Anthony (1998) [1997]. Major: A Political Life. London: Phoenix Books. ISBN 978-0753801451.
  • Snowdon, Peter (2010). Back from the Brink: The Extraordinary Fall and Rise of the Conservative Party. London: HarperPress. ISBN 978-0007308842.
  • Taylor, Robert (2006). Major. London: Haus Publishing. ISBN 978-1904950721.
  • Turner, Alwyn W. (2013). A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s. Aurum Press Ltd. ISBN 978-1781310687.

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]

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