Case study John Major

Case Study John Major

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John Major was little-known to the general public when he unexpectedly took over from a very dominant and long-serving prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in November 1990. He had served less than four years in the Cabinet before becoming prime minister, more than half of this time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a position that does not normally give its occupant a high profile outside Westminster. Major was chosen partly because he was expected to provide calm and stability, and a less divisive approach to government than Thatcher had adopted.

Major surprised many observers by winning (with a small majority of 21 seats) a further general election victory for the Conservatives in April 1992. However his second term as prime minister was fraught with problems and in May 1997 his Labour rival, Tony Blair, won a

crushing 179-seat majority. For this reason Major is commonly seen as a weak and unsuccessful prime minister.

Assessing Major's control over events and policy

• ✓ Major won credit in his first 18 months in office by acting decisively to replace the unpopular poll tax with the less-controversial council tax, which remains the system of local government finance today. This helped to distance his government from the confrontational and 'uncaring' reputation of his predecessor. The speed with which the new system was put in place helped Major to win re-election in 1992.

· ✓ Major was regarded as having handled the first Gulf War in early 1991 effectively. The war was fought to expel Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, from Kuwait, which he had invaded shortly before Major took office. Major worked effectively with Britain's US allies, led by President George Bush senior, and struck the right note both in dealing with British forces and in uniting British public opinion. This enhanced Major's standing as a national leader.

· X On the other hand Major's economic policy record is more mixed. As chancellor of the exchequer in October 1990, he had persuaded a reluctant Thatcher to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). On 'Black Wednesday' in September 1992, market pressure forced the pound out of the ERM, even though the government frantically raised interest rates in a bid to uphold its place within the specified exchange-rate limits imposed by the system. This event fatally damaged Major's reputation for economic competence and, although the economy recovered, with both inflation and unemployment falling by the mid-1990s, he gained no credit with the general public. Major was also unfortunate that Labour, steered by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was distancing itself from the damaging 'tax and spend' image of the party in previous years, and so appeared more responsible as a potential manager of the economy.

· ✓ X Major adopted a more collegial style of Cabinet management than Thatcher, allowing more discussion and deliberately acting in a more inclusive way. His lack of ideological commitments also seemed attractive. However, when things started to go wrong, these strengths became weaknesses. Colleagues did not respect and fear him as they had done his predecessor, and some doubted if he had firm beliefs on issues that mattered.

· X Major's control of his party and Cabinet was seriously undermined during his second term. Conflict over the European Union was one of the root causes of his difficulties. His party contained a hard core of 'Eurosceptic' backbenchers, who saw the EU as a threat to the UK's national sovereignty, and were particularly hostile to the Maastricht Treaty. Certainly, Major secured opt-outs for Britain from joining the planned single European currency, and from the 'Social Chapter' that increased European intervention in social policy. However, many Conservative MPs were not pacified by these concessions. Backbench revolts meant that Major secured the Treaty's passage through the Commons by only one vote in July 1993. He presided over an increasingly divided Cabinet. A sympathetic view of Major would argue that he successfully balanced pro- and anti-European ministers by taking a moderate line, whereas a leader with more pronounced views, such as Michael Heseltine (who served as Environment Secretary, Trade and Industry Secretary and finally Deputy Prime Minister), might have provoked a worse split. More negatively, however, the spectacle of disunity created an impression of weak leadership, which led to open ridicule of Major in Parliament and the media. His attempt to restore his authority in June 1995, by resigning the party leadership and inviting.any of his critics to run against him, failed to achieve its purpose. Although he comfortably saw off the challenger, former Welsh Secretary John Redwood, the infighting continued and contributed to the government's catastrophic defeat at the polls 2 years later.

X The fact that Major and his team had to devote so much time to day-to-day parliamentary management, with a disappearing majority and a divided party, hampered his chances of leaving a distinct legacy in terms of policy. He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on crisis management, trying to paper over the cracks on Europe and also coping with a series of financial and sexual scandals involving junior ministers and backbenchers, dubbed 'sleaze' by the press. One of Major's aims was to make public services more accountable to their users - an approach that was sometimes called 'Thatcherism with a human face' - but little came of this. The 'Citizen's Charter' was an attempt to lay down expectations for the performance of schools, hospitals and other bodies, but it failed to capture the public imagination. Rail privatisation was consistent with Thatcher's policy of reducing the size of the state sector and bringing in competition. However, the way that it was accomplished led to widespread criticism, in particular of the decision to separate responsibility for track from the running of train services. Overall Major appeared to be reacting to events rather than driving forward a clear and popular agenda.

· X The fact that Major and his team had to devote so much time to day-to-day parliamentary management, with a disappearing majority and a divided party, hampered his chances of leaving a distinct legacy in terms of policy. He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on crisis management, trying to paper over the cracks on Europe and also coping with a series of financial and sexual scandals involving junior ministers and backbenchers, dubbed 'sleaze' by the press. One of Major's aims was to make public services more accountable to their users - an approach that was sometimes called 'Thatcherism with a human face' - but little came of this. The 'Citizen's Charter' was an attempt to lay down expectations for the performance of schools, hospitals and other bodies, but it failed to capture the public imagination. Rail privatisation was consistent with Thatcher's policy of reducing the size of the state sector and bringing in competition. However, the way that it was accomplished led to widespread criticism, in particular of the decision to separate responsibility for track from the running of train services. Overall Major appeared to be reacting to events rather than driving forward a clear and popular agenda.

✓ Progress towards a peace deal in Northern Ireland, which had been riven for over two decades by sectarian conflict between unionists and republicans, was one of the more positive aspects of Major's premiership. He managed to establish trust with both sides through the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which ruled out the imposition of a united Ireland against the wishes of the unionists, while showing respect for the aspirations of the nationalist community. There was a return to violence in Major's final year as prime minister, but he had laid the foundations on which Tony Blair was able to build..

✓ Progress towards a peace deal in Northern Ireland, which had been riven for over two decades by sectarian conflict between unionists and republicans, was one of the more positive aspects of Major's premiership. He managed to establish trust with both sides through the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which ruled out the imposition of a united Ireland against the wishes of the unionists, while showing respect for the aspirations of the nationalist community. There was a return to violence in Major's final year as prime minister, but he had laid the foundations on which Tony Blair was able to build.