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Sir John Major

photograph of a 52-year-old Major as Prime Minister
Major in 1995
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
28 November 1990 – 2 May 1997
MonarchElizabeth II
DeputyMichael Heseltine (1995–97)
First SecretaryMichael 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
DeputyThe Visc. 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
Parliamentary offices
Member of Parliament
for Huntingdon
In office
9 June 1983 – 14 May 2001
Preceded byConstituency established
Succeeded byJonathan Djanogly
Member of Parliament
for Huntingdonshire
In office
3 May 1979 – 13 May 1983
Preceded byDavid Renton
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Personal details
Born (1943-03-29) 29 March 1943 (age 77)
St Helier, Surrey, England
Political partyConservative
(m. 1970)
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 Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Thatcher Government from 1987 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, London, Major grew up in the South London suburbs of Worcester Park and later Brixton, a move necessitated by his family's worsening financial situation. Leaving school in 1959 with just three O-levels, Major worked in a variety of jobs, as well as enduring a period of unemployment, before eventually establishing a career in banking at Standard Bank. However Major's ambitions lay in politics, and after a period as a Councillor at Lambeth Council, he was 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, in a surprise move, was promoted to Foreign Secretary two years later. Just three months later in October 1989 he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he presented the 1990 budget. Major became Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990.

Major presided over British participation in the Gulf War in March 1991, launched the Citizen's Charter initiative, and negotiated the European Union's Maastricht Treaty in December 1991.[1] In the midst of a severe recession, 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' (16 September 1992), his government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). 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.

The economy eventually revived, and Major continued to push on with his reforms in education, health and criminal justice, as well as privatising British Rail and the coal industry. He also reinvigorated the Northern Ireland peace process, creating the building blocks that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement under his successor Tony Blair, and deployed British troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina. However the Conservative Party remained polarised on the issue of European integration, and by the mid-1990s it was also embroiled in a series of sexual and financial scandals involving various MPs (including cabinet ministers), given the catch-all term 'sleaze'. 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 several 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, announcing his resignation as leader of the Conservative party shortly thereafter.

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, and has since pursued his interests in business and charity work. By the end of his premiership Major was reviled by many in his party and the press as being a weak and unassertive leader, however his time in office has come to be reappraised in more recent years, with many pointing to his successes in the Northern Irish peace process, restoring economic growth, reforming the public sector, boosting the profile of arts and sports, and preserving British influence on the international stage.[nb 1]

Early life and education (1943–1959)

260 Longfellow Road, Worcester Park, where John Major grew up from 1943 to 1955.
260 Longfellow Road, Worcester Park, where John Major grew up from 1943 to 1955.

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 2] 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 3] 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 4] 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 5]

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)

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 with 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.
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 6] 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)

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.
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 7] 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)

Chief Secretary to the Treasury (June 1987 – July 1989)

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 8] 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 Thatcher that government assistance should be provided to support the sale of Short Brothers to Bombardier, an aerospace company and major employer in Northern Ireland which might otherwise have collapsed.[133][134]

Foreign Secretary (July–October 1989)

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)

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 9] 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][161] 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.[162][163]

As Chancellor, Major presented only one Budget, the first to be televised live, on 20 March 1990.[164] 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.[165][166] 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.[167][164] 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.[168][164]

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 10] which different national currencies could compete against and, if the ECU was successful, could lead to a single currency.[170][171] 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.[172] More successfully, Major managed to get the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) located in London.[173][174]

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.[175][176][177] 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.[178][179] 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.[180][181] 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.[182][183] An interest rate cut of 1% (from 15%) was also announced on the same day.[184][181]

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 rates, but decided against it.[185][nb 11] 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.[187]

Conservative Party leadership contest (November 1990)

Anti-Poll Tax riots in London, March 1990.
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.[188][189][190] 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.[191] 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.[192][193][194] Thatcher's staunch anti-European stance also alienated pro-Europe Conservatives.[195][181] On 1 November the pro-European Geoffrey Howe resigned, issuing a fiercely critical broadside against Thatcher in the House of Commons on 13 November.[196][197][198]

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.[199][198] 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.[200][201] 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.[202] Major subsequently announced on 22 November that he would stand in the second ballot, with Thatcher's backing.[203][204] Major's platform was one of moderation on Europe, a review of the Poll Tax and the desire to build a 'classless society'.[205][206]

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.[207][208] With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day.[209][210][211] At 47 he was the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Rosebery some 95 years earlier.[212]

Prime Minister (1990–1997)

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


Immediate changes in 1990

Major aimed to consolidate the gains achieved during Thatcher's premiership, whilst also seeking to spread the rise in wealth seen in the Thatcher era across society more widely, so creating "a country at ease with itself."[213][214][215] Concerned at the rise of inequality and relative poverty in the 1980s, Major sought to position himself as a 'One Nation' Tory, with a more compassionate attitude to those negatively effect by the social and economic changes enacted during the 1980s.[216][217]

Upon becoming Prime Minister Major conducted a minor reshuffle, appointing Norman Lamont as Chancellor, bringing back Michael Heseltine into Cabinet as Environment Secretary, and moving Ken Baker to the Home Office.[218][219][220] Major was praised by colleagues for his more consensual Cabinet style, though the Labour Party criticised the lack of any women in his Cabinet.[221][222] Thatcher, initially supportive of Major, over time came to regret her support for him, often issuing highly publicised criticisms of Major that he found increasingly irritating.[223]

Amongst the first issues Major had to deal with upon taking office was replacing the deeply unpopular Poll Tax, a task he delegated to Michael Heseltine.[224] The potential electoral fallout of keeping it was again underlined when the Conservatives lost a by-election in Ribble Valley in March 1991.[225][226] A temporary relief grant of some £1 billion was granted to Local Authorities to offset the costs associated with the Tax.[225][227] In April 1993 the Poll Tax was replaced with Council Tax, set at a sliding scale based on property prices, paid for partly by a rise in VAT.[228][229][224][230]

Citizen's Charter

Major was firmly committed to tackling poor performance in the public sector and the often substandard levels of service faced by users, of which Major had personal experience.[231][232] Major wished not only to improve performance, but also to change to overall culture of the sector into one that was more open, transparent, and consumer-focused.[233][234][235] His idea was to create a set of guidelines and benchmarks against which progress could be measured and then published for the public, collectively referred to as the 'Citizen's Charter', which was formally launched on 23 March 1991.[236][237][238] Major continued to push the idea despite opposition from within the Civil Service and the sometimes lukewarm support for the concept from his ministers.[239][240] Tiring of the slow progress on implementation, Major created a Cabinet Office Committee under Andrew Whetnall to force through change and monitor departmental compliance.[241] A major aspect of the Charter process was the introduction of public performance tables so as to 'name and shame' poor performers and thereby spur change; such tables were duly introduced in schools (with league tables), rail (with British Rail publishing performance figures) and the NHS (with waiting lists).[242][243] Following his 1992 general election victory Major continued with Charter-related reforms, creating the 'Charter Mark' for those departments and organisations that were meeting their Charter targets.[244][245] One less successful aspect of the reforms was the so-called 'Cones Hotline', a phoneline which motorists could use to report out-of-place coneage, which proved to be an embarrassing failure and a source of much mockery.[245][246][247] However overall the Charter went some way to change the culture of public services in Britain, with most of Major's initiatives in this area being left in place and indeed expanded by the Labour government after 1997.[244][248][249][250]

1992 general election

The UK economy entered a recession during 1990, which deepened in 1991, with unemployment rising rapidly to 2.5 million.[251] The Conservatives had been consistently behind Labour in the opinion polls since 1989, and the gap had widened significantly during 1990, with Labour hoping that the economic gloom would convince voters to switch allegiance.[252][253] However the Conservatives managed to regain a lead after Thatcher left office, with opinion polls also showing Major as the most popular Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan in the early 1960s.[254][255][256] Major pondered calling a snap election 1991, however poor local election results in 1991, followed by further by-election losses in Monmouth, Kincardine and elsewhere, convinced him to wait.[257][258] Major also hoped that the economy may have recovered somewhat by 1992 (the last possible date the election could be called), and he was also keen to avoid accusations of exploiting the recent Gulf War victory for electoral advantage.[259][260] In spite of Labour Leader Neil Kinnock's repeated calls for an immediate general election after Major became Prime Minister, it wasn't until 11 March 1992 that Major called an election for 9 April.[261]

Labour Leader Neil Kinnock conceding defeat.
Labour Leader Neil Kinnock conceding defeat.

The Conservatives initially undertook a traditional-style campaign, with a series of set-piece policy launches and 'Meet John Major' public discussions, however Major felt these methods were too stage-managed and were failing to get through to voters.[262][263] As a result, Major decided to take his campaign directly onto the streets, delivering addresses to the public from an upturned soapbox as he had done in his days with the Brixton Young Conservatives.[264] This was opposed by many of Major's advisers, not least on security grounds, however Major enjoyed this aspect of the campaign immensely despite the often hostile crowds, and the soapbox orations chimed with the electorate.[265][266] Major's ordinary background was also emphasised, being used on a poster stating "What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister"[267][161] as well as a video entitled 'The Journey', in which Major revisited his childhood homes in Brixton.[268][269][270] Major's approach stood in contrast to the Labour Party's much slicker campaign, most notably a US-style political rally in Sheffield which was widely criticised as being overly bombastic and prematurely triumphalist.[271][272] The Conservatives also conducted a hard-hitting negative campaign, stating that Labour would spend excessively resulting in a 'tax bombshell' and a 'double whammy' of higher taxes and a rise in inflation.[251][273][274][275] Much of the press was also hostile to Labour, with The Sun issuing a notorious front-page on the day of the election featuring Neil Kinnock's head in a lightbulb under the headline 'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights'.[276][277][278][279][nb 12]

Despite this it was widely thought that after 13 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule Labour would win the election.[281][282][283] 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.[284] 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.[285][286][287] However, due to the vagaries of Britain's 'first past the post' electoral system the victory translated poorly into a much-reduced majority of 21 seats in the House of Commons (down from a majority of 102 seats at the previous election). Though this was enough for Major to remain as Prime Minister and gave the Conservatives their fourth consecutive election victory, the relatively small majority would go on to cause problems for Major throughout his second term. Furthermore, Chris Patten, Major's closest aide and confidant, lost his Bath seat to the Liberal Democrats.[288][nb 13] After the election Kinnock resigned as head of the Labour Party, to be replaced by John Smith.[290][291] Major's second honeymoon as Prime Minister following his election victory did not last long, with the events of 'Black Wednesday' in September seriously damaging the government's reputation for economic competence (see below).


The early part of Major's premiership coincided with a recession, which saw unemployment hit 3 million at its peak along with a raft of business closures and home repossessions.[292][293][294] Inflation had also reached 10.9% in mid-1990.[295][296] The recession had a knock-on effect on the government's fiscal position, as they had to spend more (to cover the increase in unemployment benefit claimants) at a time of declining tax intake.[297] Furthermore, the government's commitment to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) constrained its ability to cut interest rates and thereby stimulate the economy.[298]

The UK's forced withdrawal from the ERM in September 1992 (see Black Wednesday below) 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. An inflation target of 1–4% was introduced, which was maintained throughout Major's time in office.[299] The recession was declared over in April 1993, when the economy grew by 0.2%.[300] 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.[301][302] However the government's 1993 budget, which saw a raft of tax increases, including on domestic fuel, came in for severe criticism, as not raising taxes had been one of the key planks of their 1992 electoral campaign.[303][304][215] However economic growth in Britain would continue largely unimpeded until the 2008 banking crash and the onset of the Great Recession.[305]

Other economic reforms of the Major years include the relaxation on Sunday opening for shops (via the Sunday Trading Act 1994),[306] as well as the growth in the use of private finance initiatives (PFIs) to help fund public infrastructure projects.[307][308][309][310] The effectiveness of PFIs has been contested, though the idea was enthusiastically taken up by Tony Blair and their use expanded considerably during his term in office.[311]

The power of trade unions continued to decline during the 1990s, with union membership continuing to fall concurrent with their influence on the political process.[312] Further curbs on union activities were made in 1992 with the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act.[313] The National Economic Development Council and Wage Councils were also abolished under Major, further eroding union influence over economic policy making.[314] These trends were strengthened by the growth in globalisation and Britain's continued shift from an industrial, manufacturing-based economy to a more service-based one.[315] Major sought to create a less cumbersome, more agile labour market that could compete more effectively in the new global economy, hence why he insisted on gaining opt-outs from EU social policies which were seen as interfering with this process.[316] Additionally, efforts were made to reform the benefit system with the introduction of Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) in 1996, which aimed to incentivise the unemployed to find work and tackle so-called 'benefit scroungers.'[317][318] Critics of these reforms say that they have created a culture of low-pay, insecure working conditions and an unduly restrictive benefits system which has worsened inequality.[319] However the decline in trade union influence over left-wing politics also had the knock-on effect of increasing support for Labour by making them appear more electable.[320]

'Black Wednesday'

On 16 September 1992, the UK was forced to exit the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), 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.[321][322][323][324]

The pound had been facing pressure for several months before Black Wednesday, with Britain's trade deficit widening and the pound slipping in value against the German Deutschmark (from May–August 1992 it had dropped from DM 2.91 to 2.80).[325] Low interest rates in America were pushing many investors to buy Deutshmarks, and German government spending was high following reunification in 1990, putting pressure on the pound and other currencies such as the Italian lira.[326][327][328] During this period Major asked German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to ask the Bundesbank (the German central bank) to ease the situation, however the Bundesbank was independent of the government, and on 16 July it raised interest rates and the discount rate.[329] In late July Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont seriously discussed the options of either devaluing the pound or leaving the ERM so that domestic interest rates could be cut, however they decided not to.[330] Instead both continued to pressure Kohl and the Bundesbank to cut the German interest rates, however their pleas were ignored and relations deteriorated.[331] In early September Lamont raised a £7 billion loan to aid the pound, however the pressure in the markets continued, with the Finnish markka falling on 9 September followed by the Italian lira on the 13 September.[332][333] Investors, convinced that Britain would be next to leave the ERM, continued selling pounds.[334][335][336] On the day of Black Wednesday itself (16 September) the government repeatedly raised interest rates (up to 15%) in a bid to stay in the ERM, to no effect; later that evening a humiliated Lamont announced to the press that Britain would be leaving the ERM.[337][338][339]

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.[340][341] Labour leader John Smith attacked Major in the House of Commons, stating that he was "the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government."[342][343] Nevertheless, Major kept his economic team unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday, before eventually sacking Norman Lamont, 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.[344]

Privatisation of coal

Major sought to continue Thatcher's policy of privatising state-owned industries; he firmly ruled out schools and the National Health Service (NHS), focusing instead on rail, coal and postal services.[345][346] There were numerous exploratory attempts at privatising Royal Mail, a pet cause of Michael Heseltine, however the issue was deemed too politically sensitive and was shelved in 1994.[347][348][349][nb 14] Major instead focused on coal, with many pits loss-making and requiring a large state subsidy to continue in operation. After a review British Coal announced a raft of pit closures on 13 October 1992, which would result in the loss of 30,000 jobs.[351][352][353] The severity of the cuts programme resulted in a huge public backlash and was opposed by the Labour Party, as well as many Conservatives angry at the perceived betrayal of Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) miners who had refused to join the 1984 miners strike.[354][352][355] The miners held a large protest march in London later that year, and the Major government announced a review of some mine closures, extra funding for affected areas, as well as a more generous redundancy package for those miners who would lose their jobs.[356][357][358] Nevertheless, the privatisation programme went ahead in 1994.[359][360]

Privatisation of British Rail

Margaret Thatcher had blanched at the idea of privatising British Rail, though some basic exploratory work on the issue had been conducted from 1990, and the Conservative's 1992 election manifesto contained a commitment to privatise British Rail.[308][361] From 1994 to 1997 the railways were privatised, being split up into franchises to be run by the private sector and a company called Railtrack which was responsible for the network's infrastructure (track, signals, tunnels etc.).[362][360][308][363] The process was opposed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even many Tories.[364] The effect of privatising the railway is still disputed, with a large growth in passenger numbers and increasing fiscal efficiency matched by a continuing large public subsidy,[365][366][367] high ticket prices, often severe overcrowding and concern about foreign companies running British railways.[368][369] Better received was the Channel Tunnel, which opened in 1994, linking France and the UK directly via rail for the first time.[370]


A protest against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in London, July 1994
A protest against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in London, July 1994

Major's government was generally seen as hard-line on law and order issues, especially after Michael Howard became Home Secretary in 1993.[371][372] Howard aimed to reform a criminal justice system he saw as being overly lenient on offenders, famously stating that "prison works", and over the course of the decade prisoner numbers grew by a third.[373][374] The controversial Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed in 1994 which aimed to crack down on New Age travellers, squatters, fox hunt saboteurs and illegal raves,[nb 15] as well as ending the 'right to silence' of an accused person, allowing for inferences to be drawn from their silence, and increasing police powers of 'stop and search.'[376][377][374] Police numbers and the use of CCTV also increased during the 1990s.[378] These initiatives took place against a background of public and media concern with high crime levels, aided by the media's depiction of a seemingly lawless 'underclass', with such high-profile crimes as the killing of the toddler James Bulger by two young boys in February 1993 and the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence as he attempted to stop an attack on one of his pupils in December 1995.[379] After a series of high-profile dog maulings, the Dangerous Dogs Act was also enacted in 1991 to tackle the breeding of aggressive pedigrees.[380][381][382] The rise in the number of single mothers was also touted as evidence of moral decay in society by many Conservatives, and the Child Support Agency was created to chase absentee fathers failing to financially contribute to their children's upbringing.[383][384][385] Severe curbs on handguns were also brought in on the recommendation of the Cullen Enquiry, set up following a school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996 in which 16 children and a teacher were shot dead.[386][387][388]

Despite the tough line on crime there were several notable failures during Major's time in office. The increase in prisoner numbers resulted in overcrowding, prompting break-outs at Whitemoor Prison in 1994 and Parkhurst Prison in 1995.[389][390][391] 1991 saw the freeing of the Birmingham Six, six Irishmen wrongfully convicted in 1975 for the Birmingham pub bombings, coming a year after the freeing of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven who had been prosecuted in similar circumstances.[392][393] Subsequently, a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice was established, which resulted in the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997 to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice.[394] Controversy also focused on London's Metropolitan Police after a bungled undercover investigation into the murder of Rachel Nickell in 1992, in which the force seemingly attempted to smear an innocent man via the use of a 'honey-trap' operation,[395][396] as well the catalogue of police failures following the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, with a subsequent enquiry deeming the force to be 'institutionally racist'.[397][398]

Culture, Sport and Social policies

Major took a keen interest in culture, the arts and sport whilst in office, after a low ebb for the sector during the Thatcher era, bringing these areas together in a newly created Department of National Heritage in 1992, dubbed 'the department of fun' by its first Secretary David Mellor.[399][400][401] Major also spearheaded the launch of the National Lottery in 1994, run by the Camelot Group, the proceeds of which went to support charities, the arts and heritage projects across the country.[402][403][404][405] Despite some initial concerns at the high levels of pay for Camelot executives, and controversy that some funds went towards what were seen as overly high-brow projects (such as refurbishing the Royal Opera House), the Lottery did result in a huge source of additional funding for the cultural sector.[406][404]

Major was also keen to focus attention on sports, authorising the publication of a government policy document entitled 'Sport: Raising the Game'; efforts were made to encourage physical education (PE) in schools and provide greater funding for sporting bodies. The somewhat parlous state of Britain's sporting prowess were shown up by Britain's poor showing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta; some have credited Major's spending increases and greater government support as contributing to Britain's better performances in subsequent decades.[407] Major also backed Manchester's (unsuccessful) bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics.[408][409][nb 16]

Major's premiership also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. A planned set of celebrations for the anniversary of D-Day were scaled back after aspects of them were criticised as being inappropriate,[411][412] however the commemorations as a whole were generally well received.[413] As part of the commemorations Major travelled to France, Poland, Russia and Germany to pay his respects on behalf of Britain.[414]

Major was seen as being more socially liberal than many Conservatives, and certainly more so than Margaret Thatcher. He had little tolerance for racism, having spent part of his youth living in Brixton and having also worked in Nigeria for a period; for example, he actively supported John Taylor in his campaign to be MP for Cheltenham in 1992, which was opposed by several Conservative members allegedly due to Taylor's being black.[415][416] Major was also supportive of gay rights, despite homophobia at that time being widespread both in the Conservative Party and wider society. In 1991 he met with the actor Ian McKellen, an actor and gay rights activist, to discuss issues facing the gay community, to the criticism of some in his party and the right-wing media.[417] Major later removed restrictions on employing gay people in the civil service and army, and in 1994 the age of consent for gay men was lowered from 21 to 18.[225][227][418][419][nb 17]

In terms of the rights of disabled people, the government suffered an embarrassing setback after it was revealed that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in 1994 had been deliberately sabotaged by Conservative MPs (possibly with the government's backing) due to the expense it would have laid on businesses charged with providing full access to their premises to disabled persons. After a public outcry, notably from astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, a less stringent act (the Disability Discrimination Act) was passed the following year which outlawed discrimination but without the requirement to provide access.[421]


Major continued with the reforms in the education sector began under Thatcher with the Education Reform Act 1988; as part of this he pushed for the creation of grant-maintained schools which were outside the control of Local Education Authorities (LEAs).[422] Schools were also given greater powers to specialise in certain subject areas, thus creating greater choice for parents and pupils.[423] In 1992 league tables for schools began to be published and an independent schools inspectorate (OFSTED) was created, both with the aim of improving standards in line with the Citizen's Charter initiative.[424][425][426][427] Powers were granted to enable 'failing' schools to be taken over from LEA control. Many of these reforms, as well as the compulsory testing of pupils, were opposed by teaching unions, and there were testing boycotts in 1993.[428][245] Major and Education Secretary Gillian Shephard pressed on, the sector being regarded by them as too left-leaning and complacent in the face of low standards, to the detriment of pupils.[429][430] This analysis was seemingly confirmed when it was revealed that several senior Labour politicians - notably Harriet Harman and Tony Blair - sent their children to private schools.[431] Despite being keen to return to traditional standards in schools, Major did however oppose a proposition to reintroduce caning in Autumn 1996.[432][433]

In the tertiary sector the split between universities and polytechnics was ended with the Further and Higher Education Act in 1992, with most polytechnics re-branding themselves as universities.[434][435][436] Over the course of his premiership university student numbers continued to grow, with a third of school-leavers going on to study at degree level by the time he left office.[436]

Major had also introduced a nursery voucher scheme so as to guarantee some form of preschool for 3–4-year olds, and he planned to extend the scheme had he won the 1997 general election.[437][436]


Reforms of the National Health Service (NHS) were also introduced under Major, with spending increases leading to a broad fall in waiting times.[438] Attempts were made to introduce a form of 'internal market' and semi-autonomous NHS Trusts within the NHS so as to improve performance, however these were opposed by Labour and the British Medical Association as being a form of privatisation 'by the back door'.[438][439][439] Controversy was also engendered after attempts by Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley to streamline London's hospitals, which would have meant closing the historic St Bartholomew's; after a public outcry the plans were significantly scaled back.[440][441]

BSE outbreak
A cow suffering from BSE.
A cow suffering from BSE.

In March 1996 Major had to deal with a serious public health scare following a scientific announcement of a possible link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, colloquially referred to as 'mad cow disease') and a form of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD), a serious and potentially fatal brain disease in humans.[442][443][444] The press reported heavily on the issue, resulting in a steep fall in the amount of beef bought in the UK.[445][386] Soon after the EU banned imports of British beef into other member states and then the wider world, much to Major's fury, as almost all potentially risky meat had been previously destroyed.[446][447] A huge cattle slaughter programme was introduced in a bid to restore faith in Britain's beef industry, however the EU ban remained in place, and was later extended to cover various bovine-derivative products as well.[448][449][450] As a result, in May 1996 Major decided to withhold British cooperation on all EU-related matters until the beef situation had been resolved.[451][452][453] After some progress was made in negotiations Major ended the non-cooperation stance in June.[454] Further cattle culling took place, though the ban on British beef was not lifted until August 1999, two years after Major left office.[455][453] As of 2014, 177 people in Britain had died of vCJD.[456][457]

Local Government

Relations between central and local government had been poor in the 1980s, with Margaret Thatcher seeking to reign in the excesses of so-called 'loony left' councils.[458] Major, backed by Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, continued to push forward with local government reform, with several unloved creations of the 1970s (such as Humberside, Avon and Hereford and Worcester) being abolished and split up, often into new Unitary Authorities (UAs), which were designed to streamline council services and dispense with the old two-tier council system.[459] Further UAs were created throughout the 1990s (notably Rutland), and the system was later extended to cover the whole of Scotland and Wales.[460]

Efforts were also made by Michael Heseltine to tackle urban blight with the use of City Challenge funding and later the Single Regeneration Budget.[461] Several of the 1960s-70s council estates were by now in a poor state of repair, and efforts were made to demolish the worst of them and encourage a greater mixture of tenure in these areas via Housing action trust schemes.[462][463] The 'right-to-buy' legislation bought in under Thatcher was extended with the 'rent-to-mortgage' scheme, whereby council tenants could take a form of shared ownership of the property.[464]


The government under Margaret Thatcher had been deeply unpopular in Scotland, boosting support for Scottish devolution and independence.[465][466][467] Major opposed devolution, arguing that it would merely be a stepping stone to full independence and the eventual break-up of the United Kingdom.[468][466] Major was also sensitive to the potential risks of stoking English resentment, due to issues such as the West Lothian question and the greater per capita public spending in Scotland.[469][470] Major set out his pro-union message in a speech in Glasgow on 22 February 1992, later making the theme a key one in his 1992 general election campaign, stating that "The United Kingdom is in danger. Wake up my fellow countrymen, wake up before it's too late".[471][472] That election saw the Conservatives gain a slight rise in Scottish seats, from 9 to 11.[473] Despite being opposed to devolution, Major did agree to devolve some additional powers to the Scotland Office and the Scottish Grand Committee in 1993,[473][474] as well taking the symbolic step of returning the Stone of Scone to Edinburgh in 1996.[475][476][477][nb 18] However the moves failed to improve Conservative prospects in Scotland; the party was wiped out in the 1995 local elections, and again in the 1997 general election where they failed to gain a single seat following Labour's promise of a referendum on a Scottish parliament.[479][480][481]


Wales, where support for devolution was much weaker, presented less of a worry to Major than Scotland; some additional powers were granted to the Welsh Grand Committee, and the Welsh Language Act was passed in 1993 which strengthened the status of Welsh in public life.[482][483] As in Scotland, Conservative support in Wales ebbed away during Major's time in office, with most voters changing to Labour who championed the idea of an autonomous Welsh Assembly.[484] Conservative prospects in Wales were not aided by Welsh Secretary John Redwood, who was unpopular in Wales and, in Major's words, "did not take to the Welsh people, nor they to him."[483][nb 19]

Northern Ireland peace process

US President Bill Clinton shaking hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in Belfast, November 1995. Clinton's decision to grant a US visa to Adams provoked an angry reaction from Major.
US President Bill Clinton shaking hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in Belfast, November 1995. Clinton's decision to grant a US visa to Adams provoked an angry reaction from Major.

Upon taking office 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland had been raging for 20 years with no end in sight; despite the fact that the issue held little political gain in mainstream British politics, and the entrenched divisions between Nationalists and Unionists were viewed by many as being hopelessly intractable, Major made Northern Ireland "one of my highest priorities," stating that a similar level of violence would not be tolerated if it was occurring in England.[486] The conflict visited Major personally soon after taking office, when in February 1991 the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) fired a mortar at 10 Downing Street during a Cabinet meeting, almost killing him.[487][488][489] Though some damage was done to the building there were no casualties, and later that month Major undertook his first visit to the province.[490]

Little progress had been made with peace talks in the 1980s, with Margaret Thatcher largely viewing the conflict as a security issue, and her main attempt at a peace deal (the Anglo-Irish Agreement) gaining little whilst encountering fierce Unionist opposition.[491] In 1990 Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke stated publicly that Britain had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland and would accept Irish unification, if the majority of people in Northern Ireland so wished it.[492][493][494] In March 1991 tentative peace talks began involving the main 'constitutional' parties of Northern Ireland (i.e. those who adopted purely democratic means, thereby excluding Gerry Adams's Sinn Féin which supported the IRA's use of violence).[495] The talks would focus on three stands: restoring internal self-government to Northern Ireland on a power-sharing basis, relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.[496][490][497]

Despite declaring 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",[498][499] the British government were in fact conducting secret 'back channel' discussions with the IRA.[500][494] Thinking within Republican circles had been evolving in the 1980s, with the clear failure of the 'armed struggle' to achieve a united Ireland and the increasing electoral success of Sinn Féin indicating that their aims could perhaps be better realised politically. Gerry Adams had also been exploring options for a peaceful way forward with John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), then the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland.[501][494] In February 1993 Major had received a message from the IRA stating that "The war is over, but we need your help to end it."[502][503][504] Nevertheless, discussions faltered over the precise terms of the Sinn Féin/IRA entry into peace talks and the decommissioning of arms; frustrated at the slow progress of negotiations, Sinn Féin leaked the existence of the back channel to the media in November 1993, severely embarrassing the British government.[505][506] The IRA continued its armed campaign throughout this period, with killings and bombings in Northern Ireland almost a daily occurrence, resulting in retaliatory attacks by Loyalist paramilitaries (the Shankill Road bombing and subsequent Greysteel massacre in October 1993 being one of the deadliest of such tit-for-tat killing cycles).[507] The IRA also took its campaign to mainland Britain, aiming to increase pressure on the British government; the most notable of these attacks were the bombing of London's Baltic Exchange in April 1992, a bomb in Warrington in March 1993 which killed two young boys, and the Bishopsgate bombing in April 1993.[508][509]

Discussions were also being held with Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), with whom Major had a friendly relationship. This resulted in the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993, in which both governments publicly committed themselves to Irish unification only with the consent of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland (i.e. effectively giving the Northern Irish Unionists a veto on a united Ireland) and the inclusion of any non-violent party in peace talks (paving the way for Sinn Féin to enter talks if the IRA decommissioned its weapons).[510][509][504][511] Though opposed by the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Ian Paisley, the declaration was cautiously welcomed by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party (then the largest Unionist party in the province).[512][513] On 31 August 1994 the IRA declared a ceasefire, followed by Loyalist paramilitaries on 13 October.[514][515][504] A broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin was also lifted in both Britain and the Republic of Ireland.[516] Controversy continued however over the future decommissioning of the IRA's military arsenal.[517][518]

After the seeming momentum of 1993–94, progress then slowed. Reynolds was replaced by John Bruton as Taoiseach in November 1994, and David Trimble became leader of the UUP (replacing James Molyneaux) in August 1995.[519][520] Major was incensed when US President Bill Clinton granted Gerry Adams a visa to visit the States in January 1994, despite Adams not yet having ruled out the IRA's continuing use of violence; after Adams visited the country in March 1995 Major refused to answer Clinton's phone calls for several days.[521][522][523] A Joint Framework Document on a possible future peace settlement was launched in February 1995, though it was rejected by the UUP and DUP as being excessively 'green'.[524][525] Talks also foundered over arms decommissioning, with the issue being referred to George J. Mitchell (United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland), resulting in the 'Mitchell Principles', which reiterated that all paramilitaries should disarm.[526] The Sinn Féin/IRA interpretation of this was that they could join peace talks whilst simultaneously negotiating on decommissioning (the so-called 'twin track' approach), however this was opposed by Major and the Unionist parties.[527] With negotiations stalled, the IRA ended its ceasefire on 9 February 1996 by bombing the London docklands.[528][529][530] A further massive bomb destroyed the centre of Manchester in June 1996.[531][532][530] The year wore on with little progress being made, with the uncertainty caused by the looming UK general election (which the Conservatives were widely tipped to lose) meaning that little headway could be made.[533] However, Major's dedication to the peace process was vital in establishing the building blocks which led to the Good Friday Agreement under his successor Tony Blair in 1998, which finally brought an end to 'the Troubles'. Despite their often strained relationship, Northern Ireland was an issue Major and Blair agreed wholeheartedly on, and Blair invited Major to the pro-Good Friday Agreement campaign trail in 1998.[534][535] In his memoirs, Major wrote that "working for a Northern Ireland settlement was the most difficult, frustrating and, from 1993, time-consuming problem of government during my premiership. It was also the most rewarding. I have never regretted my decision to get involved in such a direct way."[536]

Back to Basics and 'sleaze'

At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major launched the 'Back to Basics' campaign, which he intended to be about a wide variety of issues including the economy, education and policing, but to Major's chagrin was interpreted by many (including some right-leaning Conservative cabinet ministers) as a call for a return to traditional moral and family values that they associated with the Conservative Party.[537][538][539][217] To Major's dismay the tabloid press gleefully latched onto the latter interpretation, as a seemingly endless series of sexual and financial scandals (given the catch-all term 'sleaze') hit the party over the subsequent years, starting with National Heritage Secretary David Mellor, who was forced to resign in September 1992 after allegations of an affair.[540][541] Several such scandals centred on supposed Conservative moral hypocrisy, such as Tim Yeo, Minister for the Environment and Countryside, who had fathered an illegitimate child despite having publicly lambasted single mothers and broken families, and MPs alleged to have conducted homosexual relationships with then underage men, such as Michael Brown and Jerry Hayes;[542] as well as alleged corruption in the Conservative Party, as with the Pergau dam affair,[543][544] the abuse of the 'Right to buy' housing scheme by millionaire MP Alan Duncan,[545] and the 'Homes for votes scandal' in Conservative-controlled Westminster City Council.[546]

In addition to the above one-off scandals, many of which were quickly forgotten, there were several on-goings 'sleaze'-related stories such as 'Arms-to-Iraq', which was an enquiry into how government ministers, including Alan Clark,[nb 20] had encouraged a business called Matrix Churchill to supply arms-manufacturing machinery to Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, in breach of the official arms embargo.[548] It was alleged that senior ministers had, on legal advice, attempted to withhold evidence of this official connivance via the use of public interest immunity certificates when the directors of Matrix Churchill were put on trial for breaking the embargo.[549][550][551] Major set up the Scott enquiry to look into the matter, at which Major himself gave evidence in 1994, which issued a final report in 1996 which was highly critical of the government's handling of the issue.[552][553]

Another ongoing scandal was 'Cash for Questions', in which Conservative MPs (first Graham Riddick and then David Tredinnick) accepted money to ask questions in the House of Commons in a newspaper "sting".[554][555][556] Later the MPs Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were found to have received money from Mohamed Al-Fayed, also to ask questions in the House.[557][558][559] The MP David Willetts later resigned as Paymaster General after he was accused of rigging evidence to do with 'Cash for Questions'.[560] Although Tim Smith stepped down from the House of Commons at the 1997 general election, Neil Hamilton sought re-election for his seat, being defeated by former BBC Reporter Martin Bell who stood as an anti-sleaze candidate, with both the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates withdrawing in his favour.[561][562] As with 'Arms-to-Iraq' Major set up an independent enquiry into the matter under Michael Nolan, which resulted in the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.[563][564] An initial report recommended a limit on outside work and transparency in earnings by MPs, angering some Conservative MPs into voting against it, which further muddied the party's image in the popular consciousness.[565][566][567] Further public anger arose over the so-called 'revolving door' of Conservative ex-ministers taking high-paying jobs in companies they had helped privatise whilst in office.[568]

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."[569]

1995 leadership election

Following his 1992 election victory Major's fortunes took a turn for a worse, with the ignominy of 'Black Wednesday' and the bruising battles to pass the Maastricht Treaty (See Europe below) exposing the increasingly acrimonious divisions within the Conservative Party.[570] Major's own personal ratings in opinion polls were low, and he was now being reviled on an almost daily basis by newspapers whose support the Conservatives had once taken for granted.[571][343] Critics from all corners were also attacking his 'consensus' approach to politics, with Norman Lamont, after being sacked as Chancellor delivering a stinging critique of Major's government in the House of Commons on 9 June 1993, stating that it "gives the impression of being in office but not in power."[572][573][574] In addition to the above, a string of defeats at by-elections, the European elections in June 1994 and local elections in May 1995 saw a severe decline in support for the Conservatives.[575][576] There were constant rumours of a leadership challenge, exacerbated in June 1995 when the second part of Margaret Thatcher's memoirs were published, containing a chapter which was fiercely critical of Major's premiership.[577][578] On 13 June 1995 Major had an extremely ill-tempered meeting with right-leaning backbenchers, which Major cites as the moment he decided on a leadership contest, stating that "the situation as it stood was intolerable to me personally, and corrosive to the party."[579][580] The situation was not helped when, a few days later at a G7 summit in Canada, Major was overheard to have stated to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that "I run a coalition of government of my own."[579][581] On 22 June 1995, tired of the continual threats of leadership challenges that never arose, Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and announced that he would contest the resulting leadership election, telling his opponents that "it is time to put up or shut up"; he continued to serve as Prime Minister whilst the leadership was vacant.[582][583][584] John Redwood resigned as Secretary of State for Wales to stand against him, with some hoping he would act as a 'stalking horse' candidate, clearing the way for a more substantial figure such as Michael Portillo or Michael Heseltine to enter a second round.[585][586][587][nb 21] The Sun newspaper, still at this stage supporting the Conservative Party, had lost faith in Major and declared its support for Redwood, running the front-page headline "Redwood versus Deadwood".[589][590] The vote took place on 14 July, with Major winning 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.[591] 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.[591][592] Following his victory Major conducted a mini-reshuffle, replacing Redwood with William Hague as Welsh Secretary, promoting Michael Heseltine to Deputy Prime Minister, and moving Michael Portillo to Defence.[593][594][595]

1997 general election defeat

There was a brief boost in Major's fortunes following his victory in the self-declared leadership contest in 1995, however this did not last, and his premiership continued to be undermined by Conservative MPs defecting to other parties, further by-election defeats, ongoing 'sleaze'-related scandals and party disunity, most notably over Europe. By December 1996 the Conservatives had lost their majority in the House of Commons.[596] Meanwhile, the Labour Party, re-branded as 'New Labour' by its new leader Tony Blair (John Smith having suddenly died in May 1994), seemed vibrant and fresh; having shifted decisively to the political centre (notably with the jettisoning of Clause Four of the party constitution, which committed them to common ownership of industry), it seemed a much more appealing prospect to many floating voters.[597][598][599] Labour remained far ahead in the opinion polls as the general election loomed, despite the economic boom and swift fall in unemployment that had followed the end of the early 1990s recession (later dubbed a 'voteless recovery' for the Tories).[215][600]

Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party, beat Major in the 1997 election.
Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party, beat Major in the 1997 election.

Major faced 1997 knowing that he would have to call an election at some point before May. He considered conducting an early election in March, but decided against it following a Conservative defeat at a by-election in Wirral in February.[601][602][603] On 17 March Major announced that the election would be held on 1 May, hoping that a long campaign would enable him to benefit from the continuing economic recovery and expose 'New Labour' as a shallow marketing gimmick, via the slogan 'New Labour, New Danger'.[604][605][606] However, Major refused to conduct a 'dirty campaign', only reluctantly green-lighting the infamous Blair 'demon eyes' poster, and vetoing the use of a similar TV advert showing Blair making a Faustian-style pact with a shadowy spin doctor.[607][608][609]

In his memoirs Major admitted that he knew the election was a lost cause from the outset: "people believed Labour were bound to win before the campaign even started. They were right."[610] Major stated that the public were tired of 'sleaze' and Conservative Party bickering over Europe, and after the fourth consecutive Conservative election victory in 1992 even he thought that they had perhaps "stretched the democratic elastic too far."[611][215] His main hope was that Labour's margin of victory could be kept relatively small, enabling the Conservatives to regroup and fight to win the next election.[612] The hope proved to be forlorn, with support for the Conservatives being further eroded by the fielding of several candidates by the Referendum Party, founded by billionaire James Goldsmith on a platform of leaving the EU.[613][614] The 'cash-for questions' scandal continued to focus unwelcome attention on Tory 'sleaze' (focused especially on Neil Hamilton, who to Major's annoyance refused to resign and continued to fight the election), with the opposition accusing Major of proroguing Parliament earlier than usual so as to delay the publication of a report into the scandal.[615] There was also only lukewarm support for Major from the Tory press, with The Sun famously switching its support to Labour.[616][617][618][619]

Major launched the Conservative manifesto on 2 April (entitled 'You Can Only be Sure with the Conservatives'), which lauded the performance of the economy, and proposed tax benefits for married couples, pensions reform and a referendum on the Euro.[620][621][622] The latter proved particular divisive, with many Conservative candidates publicly condemning Major's 'wait and see' policy on the single currency, prompting him to implore them not to "bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation."[623] Major also brought back his soapbox, hoping to recapture some of the spirit of the 1992 campaign, though with little success.[624] Labour meanwhile ran a much slicker professional campaign, with a highly organised media team under Alastair Campbell ensuring that all its candidates were consistently on message.[624] An electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats in parts of the country further aided their cause.[625]

As the results came in after the vote on 1 May 1997, it became clear that Labour had won by a landslide, with the Conservative Party suffering the worst electoral defeat by a ruling party since the Reform Act of 1832.[626] 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, David Mellor and Michael Portillo. The huge election defeat also left the Conservatives without any MPs in Scotland or Wales for the first time in history.[627][626] The party would not return to government until 2010 (and then only in coalition with the Liberal Democrats), and would not win a parliamentary majority until 2015.

The following day, as Labour celebrated, 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 that "the incoming government will inherit the most benevolent set of economic statistics of any incoming government since before the First World War" and that "when the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage – and that is what I propose to do."[628] Major then announced to the press that he intended to go with his family to The Oval to watch Surrey play cricket.[629][630][631]


Major's Premiership coincided with a period of profound change in the international landscape, with the collapse of the USSR ending the Cold War, continued economic globalisation, the end of apartheid in South Africa and a continued push for European integration, though there were also serious conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. Though aware that Britain was no longer the dominant global player it once was, Major sought to continue the pursuit of a proactive foreign policy so that Britain could continue to 'punch above its weight' on the international stage.[632]

Major used the end of the Cold War to justify cuts to the defence budget in 1993, which saw the scrapping of some long-standing regiments of the British Army.[633][634][nb 22] Adjusting to new realities, Britain and France increased their military cooperation in this period.[636] However both countries maintained their nuclear deterrent capabilities.[637]

Major also sought to ensure Britain remained engaged with international organisations such as the European Community (renamed the European Union from 1993), the United Nations (where Britain remained one of the five members of the UN Security Council) and the Commonwealth. Major pushed for reform of the UN, still operating within the basic framework of its founding in 1945, so that it would better reflect the modern balance of power, however little progress was made in this area.[638][639] Britain also enthusiastically pushed for greater economic globalisation, joining the newly formed World Trade Organization in 1995 following the successful conclusion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade's 'Uruguay Round' in 1993.[640][641][642] Major also sought to promote the peaceful resolution of international conflicts, supporting the Arab-Israeli peace process[nb 23] and efforts to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.[644] He also sought to reach out to areas traditionally neglected by Britain, for instance in 1992 he became the first British Prime Minister in 50 years to visit South America, going to Colombia and attending the Earth Summit in Brazil.[645][646]

Despite the active foreign policy, Major often found himself frustrated with the ostentatious summits he was compelled to attend, viewing many of them as "gilt-edged boondoggles" where he was obliged to "listen to interminable speeches before signing up to pre-cooked conclusions much longer on verbiage than action."[647] The G7 summits were notorious in this regard, with the elaborate ceremony of the 1993 summit in Tokyo coming in for particular criticism.[648] Major found US President Bill Clinton to be in sympathy with him on the matter, and the following summits (such as in Naples in 1994 and Canada in 1995) were much more scaled-back, informal, and in Major's view productive, affairs.[649]

Gulf War

A British tank in Kuwait during the Gulf War.
A British tank in Kuwait during the Gulf War.

Upon becoming Prime Minister Major was immediately faced with having to deal a major war in the Middle East. Under President Saddam Hussein, Iraq had annexed oil-rich Kuwait in August 1990, and there were fears that he might seek to expand the conflict to Saudi Arabia or Israel.[650][651] The UN had authorised the use of force if necessary, with this being backed by the other major British political parties and approved by the House of Commons in September 1990 and January 1991.[652][651] Operating under US tactical command, some 45,000 British troops were sent to the Gulf; they were inoculated due to fears that Hussein would use chemical and biological weapons.[653][651][654] Major visited US President George HW Bush in December 1990, assuring him of complete British support.[655][656] Major also travelled to the Gulf in January 1991, speaking with British troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and meeting the Kuwaiti government in exile, as well the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Egypt.[657][658][659]

Under United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, Iraq was given a deadline of 15 January 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait.[660][651][661] The deadline passed with Iraqi forces still occupying Kuwait, and an air campaign was launched by US and coalition forces on 16 January, with the ground war beginning on 24 February.[488][662] The swift campaign was successful and a ceasefire was declared on 28 February, with Iraqi forces pushed over the border and the conflict contained with the immediate region, despite Iraqi attempts to draw Saudi Arabia and Israel into the conflict.[663][664] Despite the largely one-sided nature of the conflict, 47 British troops were killed, and enormous environmental damage was caused as retreating Iraqi forces set fire to Kuwait's oilfields.[665][488][666] The allied troops did not push on to Baghdad and remove Hussein, as this was not endorsed by the UN resolution;[667][668][659] there were hopes that a internal revolts would succeed in unseating him, however these were brutally crushed and Hussein remained in power.[669][670][nb 24] A series of sanctions were placed on Iraq, and Major pushed for the creation of no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq, thereby enabling Kurdish forces in the north to establish a de facto autonomous zone and avoiding further massacres.[672][673][674] Within Britain, a national thanksgiving service to commemorate those who had died in the conflict was held at Glasgow Cathedral in May 1991.[675]


In 1991 Major stated that he wished to see Britain "at the very heart of Europe", though he was a pragmatist on European integration, favouring the pooling of sovereignty on issues where he felt it made practical sense to do so (such as the single market), but opposing the single currency, a common defence policy or anything else that smacked of federalist over-reach.[676][677] However Major found himself caught between a largely (though not entirely) Eurosceptic Conservative Party (backed by a vocal Margaret Thatcher) and press, and the more federalist vision of several of his European counterparts.[678] In the lead-up to the 1991 Maastricht Treaty negotiations Major, with the backing of the Cabinet, made it clear that he would be unable to sign Britain up to either to a single currency or the Social Chapter of the Treaty.[679][680] The negotiations proceeded in December 1991, with France, Germany, the Netherlands and the European Community (EC) itself all pushing for a more federal future for the EC (symbolically recognised at Maastricht by renaming the EC the 'European Union').[681] After protracted discussions, opt-outs for Britain from both the Social Chapter and single currency were achieved, as well as ensuring that foreign and defence policy were kept as matters of inter-governmental co-operation, with Major claiming to have won "game, set and match for Britain".[682][683][684]

Even these moves towards greater European integration met with vehement opposition from the Eurosceptic wing of Major's party and his Cabinet, evident at the rambunctious Conservative Party Conference in October 1992, with pro-EU members (such as Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd) and Eurosceptics (such as Norman Tebbitt) both receiving rapturous applause from their respective supporters.[685][686][687] The Maastricht process was thrown into chaos after being rejected by Denmark in a referendum in June 1992, casting doubts on whether a similar referendum in France would pass later that year.[688][689] The French vote in September passed – just – and Major thus attempted to ratify the treaty in Parliament.[690] The divisions only worsened in the first half of 1993, with each stage of the bill's reading being opposed or blocked by Eurosceptic Conservatives.[691] Although Labour supported the treaty, they tactically opposed certain provisions of the Treaty so as 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 the Treaty as a whole could be ratified. On 22 July 1993, several Conservative MPs, known as the Maastricht Rebels, voted for this amendment so as to block the wider ratification, and the Government was defeated.[692] Major called another vote on the following day, which he declared as a vote of confidence (the loss of which would have required him to call a general election).[693][694] He won the vote but severe damage had been done to his authority in Parliament and within the Conservative Party.[695]

The following 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?"[nb 25] 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",[697] but many journalists suggested that the three were Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, three of the more prominent Eurosceptics within his Cabinet.[698][695] 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 and further inflaming tensions within the Conservative Party.

Early in 1994 Major vetoed the Belgian politician Jean-Luc Dehaene's succession to Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission, deeming him to be excessively federalist, only to find that he had to accept a Luxembourger politician of similar views, Jacques Santer, instead.[699][700] Around this time Major – who in an unfortunate phrase denounced the Labour Leader John Smith as "Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels" – also tried to block an increase in the Qualified Majority needed for voting in the newly enlarged EU (which would make it harder for Britain, in alliance with other countries, to block federalist measures).[701][702] After Major had to back down on this issue the MP Tony Marlow called openly in the House of Commons for his resignation, with Major himself calling the climb-down "a humiliating retreat."[703][704][702]

In November 1994, during a Commons vote on an EU finance bill, eight MPs rebelled against the government. Major had stated that the bill was a confidence matter and he withdrew the whip from them, effectively expelling them from the Party (plus a ninth who had later sided with the rebels).[705][706][707] Hoping to heal the divisions caused by the episode, Major re-admitted the rebels in April 1995, only for them to openly continue their Eurosceptic activities.[708] Newly elected Labour leader Tony Blair seized on the episode, saying of Major at Prime Minister's Questions that "I lead my party, he follows his."[709][710]

For the rest of Major's premiership the main European fault-lines were the BSE controversy (see BSE outbreak above) and whether Britain would join the single currency, scheduled to be launched in 1999. Some leading Conservatives, including Chancellor Ken Clarke, favoured joining, whilst large numbers of others expressed their reluctance or outright opposition to joining. Major adopted a 'wait and see' policy, refusing to rule out the possibility of joining at some point in the future if it was in Britain's economic interest to do so, and proffering the option of a referendum on the issue.[711] 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 opposition to joining.[712]

Bosnian War

Major's premiership coincided with the collapse of Yugoslavia and the resulting war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and parts of Croatia). Tensions between the constituent republics of Yugoslavia had been building since the death of President Josep Broz Tito in 1980, exacerbated by the political uncertainty caused by the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe in the period 1989–91. In June 1991 both Slovenia and Croatia declared independence; whilst the Serb-dominated central government in Belgrade let the almost homogeneous Slovenia leave after only a brief war, the situation in Croatia, parts of which contained large numbers of ethnic Serbs, was much more contested.[713][714][715] The EU, at Germany's insistence, recognised the independence of the two states in December 1991.[716][717][718] War broke out between Serbia (led by the nationalist Slobodan Milošević) and Croatia (ruled by Franjo Tuđman) over the Serb-populated region of Slavonia region in north-east Croatia, prompting the UN to send in a peacekeeping force (UNPROFOR).[719][714] The fiercest fighting however occurred following the declaration of independence by Bosnia and Herzegovina under President Alija Izetbegović on 6 April 1991; the mountainous republic's population was split between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims (or 'Bosniaks'), and full-scale civil war broke out between them, with the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs backed by Tuđman and Milošević respectively. The war caught Europe and the world unawares, and shocking scenes of POW camps (likened by some to Nazi concentration camps), huge refugee flows and campaigns of ethnic cleansing began to be broadcast over the world, leading to calls for intervention.[720]

Major at the final signing of the Dayton Agreement in Paris which ended the Bosnian War.
Major at the final signing of the Dayton Agreement in Paris which ended the Bosnian War.

Major discussed the worsening crisis at a Cobra meeting held in August 1992, where Britain's top military advisers stated that only an enormous 400,000-strong troop deployment would have any kind of decisive effect.[721] At a conference held in London later that month, Britain agreed with France to deploy a much more limited force charged with protecting refugees.[722][720] The force was deployed in November 1992, with Major visiting the area in December.[723] The US administration had been distracted by the election that year, though it became more involved following the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.[724] However, there were serious disagreements between Britain and the US over how to handle the crisis, causing tensions in the "special relationship". British government policy (under Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd) was to maintain the UN arms embargo, which restricted the flow of weapons into the region, and to oppose airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs. Hurd's reasoning was that lifting an arms embargo would only create a so-called "level killing field" and that airstrikes would expose UN and Anglo-French peacekeepers to Serb retaliation.[725][726] The Clinton administration, by contrast, was committed to a policy of "lift and strike" (i.e. lifting the arms embargo and inflicting airstrikes on the Serbs where necessary), but was opposed to any wide-scale NATO troop deployment.[727] British policy was criticised by various commentators as a form of "amoral equivalency", because it appeared to judge the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Serbs equally culpable.[728] Hurd's hardline realist position on the conflict, in which Bosnia was not seen to be within Britain's strategic interest, was harshly criticised by those of a more interventionist mindset, notably Margaret Thatcher, who saw the Bosnian Muslims as being the main victims of the conflict and therefore entitled to access to armaments.[729][730][nb 26]

The conflict dragged on throughout 1993 and 1994. NATO began conducting limited airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces in 1994, prompting them to capture some UNPROFOR troops as hostages in May 1995.[732] In July 1995 roughly 8,000 Bosniak males were murdered in Srebrenica by Serb forces, despite supposedly being in a UN 'safe haven'.[733][734] A subsequent increase in Anglo-French forces (known as the Rapid Reaction Force) and UN troops, aided by a more coordinated campaign of NATO airstrikes, as well as the military stalemate between the various militias on the ground, led to peace talks being held in Dayton, Ohio in October 1995.[733][735] The subsequent peace agreement led to Croatia and Serbia recognising Bosnia's existence as an independent state, albeit one split into two 'entities' (one Serb, one Croat-Muslim) with a relatively weak central government.[736][737] Up to 100,000-200,000 people had been killed in the war and British peacekeepers (as part of Implementation Force and then later the Stabilisation Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina) remained in the region for several years.[738][739][nb 27]

United States

Major with President George H. W. Bush at Camp David in 1992.
Major with President Bill Clinton at the White House Solarium in 1994.

America continued to be Britain's main foreign ally during Major's time in office, which saw the emergence of the US as the world's sole superpower following the collapse of the USSR. Major enjoyed close relations with George H. W. Bush (President from 1989 to 1993), with the two establishing a close bond during the lead up to the Gulf War, in which Major pledged Britain's unconditional support. Major never quite managed to establish a similar rapport with Bill Clinton (President from 1993 to 2001).[742] There were tensions in the relationship from the outset, when it emerged that some (fairly low-level) Conservative figures had flown to America in 1992 to support Bush's re-election campaign, as well as offering to dig up 'dirt' on Clinton stemming from his student days at Oxford University in the late 1960s.[743][744] Further tensions arose over the response to the ongoing war in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, with Major incensed when Clinton gave the green-light for a visit to the States by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.[742][745] Over time the relationship improved, with Clinton becoming only the second US president ever to address both Houses of Parliament on a state visit in November 1995.[746]


Relations within The Commonwealth improved significantly following the end of apartheid in South Africa and the end of the acrimonious dispute over imposing sanctions on the country.[747] At the 1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Zimbabwe the organisation issued the Harare Declaration on democratic principles and peaceful development.[748][749][750] Major steadfastly supported South Africa's transition to majority rule, conducting a state visit to the country in September 1994, with South African President Nelson Mandela visiting the UK in 1993 and 1996.[751][752][476] At the 1995 CHOGM in New Zealand Major and Mandela strongly denounced Nigeria's execution of peaceful political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, with the country being suspended from the Commonwealth.[753] However the meeting was overshadowed by disputes over French nuclear testing in the Pacific, which was supported by Major but opposed to by most other states.[753][754]

Major sought to boost business links with India, with the country seeing rapid economic growth following reforms introduced in 1991.[755][756] Major visited the country twice, becoming the first British Prime Minister to attend India's Republic Day in 1993.[757][758] In 2020 it emerged that Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had asked Major to facilitate an informal meeting between her and Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, however Rao rejected the offer.[759]

In 1994 a genocide occurred in Rwanda,[nb 28] resulting in the deaths of some 800,000–1,000,000 people.[761] Major's government has come in for criticism in the way it responded to the killings, with declassified intelligence documents revealing that Britain was aware of the impending bloodbath, but along with the US sought to block the use of the word 'genocide' to describe the killings (which would have obligated intervention) and even to scale back the UN peacekeeping force (UNAMIR) in the country.[762][763][764] Rwanda was deemed to be a small, remote country of no strategic value to Britain, nor indeed of any great interest to the press or public, and one furthermore that lay in France's 'sphere of influence' in Africa.[764] Though a small contingent of British troops (under Operation Gabriel) was deployed to Rwanda in support of UNAMIR in late July 1994, by then the worst of the killing had already ended.[764] President Clinton later apologised for his inaction during the genocide, though Major did not, and no mention of Rwanda is made in his memoirs.[764]


The huge economic growth in China which began in the 1980s following the reforms of Deng Xiaoping continued into the 1990s, though China had not yet reached the status of proto-superpower it would achieve in the early 21st century.[765] In 1991 Major became the first Western leader to visit China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.[766] Major did raise his concerns on human rights issues, however relations between the two countries were dominated by the issue of Hong Kong, a British territory due to be handed back to China in 1997. Chris Patten, the last British governor of the territory, aimed to cement democratic reforms before the handover (as with the 1994 Hong Kong electoral reform), due to concerns that Hong Kong's relatively liberal democracy would not survive the change.[767] The territory was peacefully handed over to China on 1 July 1997 (after Major had left office), operating under a system of 'one country, two systems'.[768]


Major's Premiership coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, which saw the emergence of 15 newly independent states, several of which were engaged in violent conflicts with internal separatist elements, against a background of serious economic dislocation caused by an at times chaotic transition to capitalism. Upon becoming Prime Minister Major was keen to maintain strong links with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, inviting him to a G7 meeting in July 1991.[769][770][674] Major later firmly backed Russian President Boris Yeltsin during an attempted coup in August 1991, and supported him as Russia transitioned from Communism, writing later in his memoirs that "to disregard Russia when she was weak might not be forgotten when she was strong again."[771][772][674] Despite tensions over Russia's handling of the war in Chechnya, there were several mutual state visits, and an Anglo-Russian friendship treaty was signed in 1992.[773][nb 29] Major also proposed expanding the G7 to include Russia, with the G8 being formed under Major's successor Tony Blair.[775][nb 30]

Final years in Parliament (1997–2001)

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.[777] 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."[629]

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.[629][778] 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 no longer had any Scottish MPs.[629][778][779] Major's resignation as Conservative Leader formally took effect on 19 June 1997 after the election of William Hague.[780][781]

Major's Resignation Honours were announced on 1 August 1997.[782] He remained active in Parliament, regularly attending and contributing in debates.[783] He stood down from the House of Commons at the 2001 general election, having announced his retirement from Parliament on 10 March 2000.[784] Jonathan Djanogly took over as MP for Huntingdon, retaining the seat for the Conservatives at the 2001 election.[785]

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.[786]

Post-Parliamentary life

Major at the Hist Inaugural in 2007.
Major (left) with the Queen (centre) 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.[787] In 1999 he published his autobiography, covering his early life and time in office, which was generally well received.[788][789] 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)[790] and a book about music hall (My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall) in 2012.[791]

He has further indulged his love of cricket as President of Surrey County Cricket Club from 2000 to 2001[792] (and Honorary Life Vice-President since 2002).[793] In March 2001 he gave the tribute to cricketer Colin Cowdrey at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey.[794] 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.[795][796]

John Major has also been actively engaged in charity work, being President of Asthma UK,[797] and a Patron of the Prostate Cancer Charity, Sightsavers UK, Mercy Ships, Support for Africa 2000[797] and Afghan Heroes.[798] In February 2012, Major became chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust,[799] 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.[799] Major was a Patron of the sight loss and learning disability charity SeeAbility from 2006 to 2012 has been a vice-president since 2013.[800]

Major has also pursued a variety of business interests, taking up appointments as Senior Adviser to Credit Suisse,[801][802][803] chairman of the board of Senior Advisers at Global Infrastructure Partners,[797][802] Global Adviser to AECOM,[802] Chairman of the International Advisory Board of the National Bank of Kuwait,[797] and Chairman of the European Advisory Council of the Emerson Electric Company.[797][803][804] He was a member of the Carlyle Group's European Advisory Board from 1998 and was appointed Chairman of Carlyle Europe in May 2001.[805][806][807] He stood down from the Group circa 2004–05.[804][808] Major was also a director at the bus manufacturers the Mayflower Corporation from 2000 to 2003, which was liquidated in 2004 due to funding issues.[809][803][810]

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.[811] 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.[812] Major has also attended the funerals of notable political figures, such as Nelson Mandela in December 2013,[813] former US First Lady Barbara Bush at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas on 21 April 2018[814] and the state funeral of former US President George H. W. Bush on 5 December 2018.[815]

Revelation of affair

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 to 1988.[816][817] 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".[818]

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.[819][819][820]

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."[821]

Political engagement

Major delivering a speech at Chatham House in 2010.
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.[822] Major is also actively involved in various think tanks: he is currently a president of Chatham House,[797] a member of the International Advisory Boards of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel,[797] the InterAction Council,[797] the Baker Institute in Houston,[823] and a Patron of the Atlantic Partnership.[797][823] Major was also a Director with the Ditchley Foundation from 2000 to 2009,[809][824] and a President of the influential centre-right think tank the Bow Group from 2012 to 2014.[825]

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.[826] 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.[827] He told BBC News that he and Lamont had been the victims of "whispering voices" to the press.[828] He later publicly approved the release of the papers.[829]

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.[830]

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".[831]

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.[832][833] 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."[834][835]

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.[836][837]


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.[838] Major feared Brexit will make the UK poorer and could endanger the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.[839]

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.[840] 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."[841] 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".[842]

Assessment and legacy

Bust of Major by Shenda Amery in Huntingdon Library.
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.[843] 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, with many viewing him as a weak and vacillating leader.[843] Ongoing 'sleaze'-related scandals among leading Conservative MPs also did Major and his government no favours, decreasing support for the party amongst the public. His task became even more difficult after the election of the modernist and highly media-savvy Tony Blair as Labour leader in July 1994, who mercilessly exploited Conservative divisions whilst shifting Labour to the centre, thus making it much more electable.[844] Whilst few observers doubted that Major was an honest and decent 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 which destroyed the Conservative's reputation for effective economic management.[845]

Major defended his government in his memoirs, focusing particularly on how under him the British economy had recovered from the recession of 1990–1993. 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".[846] Major's Chancellor Ken Clarke stated in 2016 that Major's reputation looked better as time went by, in contrast to that of Tony Blair's which appeared to be in decline.[847] Paddy Ashdown, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats during Major's term of office, was more sympathetic, writing in 2017 that Major was "one of the most honest, brave and sincere men to ever be Prime Minister" and that his time in office compares favourably with that of his successor Tony Blair.[848]

Writing shortly after he left office, the historian and journalist Paul Johnson wrote that Major was "a hopeless leader" who "should never have been Prime Minister."[849] The sentiments echoed that of much of the press at the time, which was generally hostile to Major, especially after Black Wednesday. The journalist Peter Oborne was one such figure, though writing in 2017 he stated that he now regrets his negative reporting, stating that he himself and the press in general were "grossly unfair to Major" and that this was motivated at least in part by snobbery at Major's humble upbringing.[850] In 2012 Oborne had written that Major's government looks ever more successful as time goes by.[851] Oborne singled out Major's achievements in the Northern Irish peace process, boosting the economy, keeping Britain out of the Eurozone, and his reforms of public services as being worthy of praise.[852] Others remain unconvinced however and, writing in 2011, the BBC's Home editor Mark Easton judged that "Majorism" had made little lasting impact.[853]

In academic circles Major's legacy has generally been more well received. Mark Stuart, writing in 2017, stated that Major is "the best ex-Prime Minister we have ever had", praising him for initiating the Northern Ireland peace process, peacefully handing Hong Kong back to China, creating the National Lottery and leaving a sound economy to Labour in 1997.[854] Dennis Kavanagh likewise states that Major did relatively well considering the unbridgeable divides that existed in the Conservative Party in the 1990s, chiefly over Europe, whilst also delivering economic growth, a more user-focused public sector and the basis of peace settlement in Northern Ireland.[215] He also notes that Major's unexpected 1992 election victory effectively sealed in the Thatcher-era reforms and forced the Labour Party to ditch most of its more socialist-tinged policies, thereby permanently shifting the British political landscape to the centre ground.[215] Anthony Seldon largely agrees with this assessment, adding that Major's deep dislike of discrimination contributed to the continuing decline in racism and homophobia in British society, and that his proactive foreign policy stance maintained Britain's influence in the world at a time of profound global change.[855] He also notes that Major faced a deeply unfavourable set of circumstances: most of the obvious and pressing Conservative reforms (e.g. reigning in the power of trade unions and privatising failing industries) had already being completed under Thatcher, the swift nature of his rise to power left him little time to formulate policy positions and upon becoming PM he was immediately thrust into having to deal with the Gulf War and a major recession. Furthermore, the narrow majority achieved after the 1992 election left him exposed to internal Conservative rebellions, which only worsened as time went by, abetted by a hostile press, as it became clear the Conservatives would lose the next election.[856] Seldon concludes that "Major was neither non-entity nor failure. His will be judged an important if unruly premiership at the end of the Conservative century, completing some parts of an earlier agenda while in some key respects helping to define a Conservatism for the 21st century."[857] Seldon reiterated these views in his contribution to the 2017 volume John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister?[858] Political historian Robert Taylor, in his 2006 biography of Major, concurs with many of these points, summing up that "In the perspective provided by the years of New Labour government since May 1997, John Major's record as Prime Minister looked much better than his many critics liked to suggest... Britain's most extraordinary Conservative Prime Minister bequeathed an important legacy to this party and his country to build on. One day both yet may come to recognise and appreciate it."[859] Noted political historian Dick Leonard however, writing in 2004, was more harsh in his assessment, concluding that Major was "A man of evident decent instincts, but limited abilities: as Prime Minister he pushed these abilities to the limit. It was not enough."[860]

Representation in the media

Major at Chatham House in 2011.
Major at Chatham House in 2011.

During his leadership of the Conservative Party, Major was portrayed as honest ("Honest John")[861][862] but unable to exert effective control over his fractious party. However his polite, easy-going manner was initially well received by both his supporters and his critics.[863] 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".[864][865] Long-standing Conservative MP Enoch Powell, when asked about Major, stated "I simply find myself asking – does he really exist?",[866] whereas on the left Labour's Alastair Campbell dismissed him as a "piece of lettuce that passes for prime minister"[867] and 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."[868]

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,[869] as a pale grey echo of both Superman and Supermac, a parody of Harold Macmillan.[870][871] 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;[872][873] 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.[874]

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.[875][871] 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;[876][877] 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.[878] 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.[879]

Major was often mocked for his nostalgic evocation of what sounded like the lost Britain of the 1950s (see Merry England);[880] 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'."[881] Major complained in his memoirs that these words (which drew upon a passage in George Orwell's essay The Lion and the Unicorn)[882] 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.[864] 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."[883]

Major has been depicted on screen by Keith Drinkel in Thatcher: The Final Days (1991),[884] Michael Maloney in Margaret (2009)[885] and Robin Kermode in The Iron Lady (2011).[885] Footage of Major's 1992 election win is used in Patrick Keiller's 1994 documentary film London.[886] Major was also one of the prime ministers portrayed in the 2013 stage play The Audience.[887] Less flatteringly, Major was the subject of the song John Major – Fuck You by Scottish punk band Oi Polloi.[888]

Personal life

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.[889][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.[890] 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.[807] 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.[807][798][891] As with all former prime ministers, Major is entitled to round-the-clock police protection.[892][893]

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.[894][895] Salter died on 22 November 2002 from cancer.[896] 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.[895][897] The couple had a son, Harrison, born July 2000, who later diagnosed with autism.[898] The marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce in 2003, with Noble accusing Major of "unreasonable behaviour".[899] 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.[900][901] John's sister Patricia Dessoy kept a much lower profile; she died in 2017.[902] To his surprise, after leaving office Major discovered that his father had fathered two children extramaritally – Tom Moss and Kathleen Lemmon.[903][904][905]

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.[906][907][908][909][910]

Major has been keen on sports since his youth, most notably cricket;[911] he is also a supporter of Chelsea F.C.[912][913] and a Patron of British Gymnastics.[914] He also enjoys gardening, listening to music and reading, Anthony Trollope being amongst his favourite authors.[915][916] Major is a Christian, though his upbringing was never especially religious and he states that he is "a believer at a distance".[917] 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."[918]


Major in the robes of the Order of the Garter.
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.[919]

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.[920]

On 20 June 2008, Major was granted the Freedom of the City of Cork.[921][922] He was also granted the Outstanding Contribution to Ireland award in Dublin on 4 December 2014.[923][924]

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.[925]


In 2008 Major won the British Sports Book Awards (Best Cricket Book) for More Than a Game: The Story of Cricket's Early Years.[926]

Public commemoration

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,[927][928] as is a bronze bust by Anne Curry, unveiled in the Members' Lobby on 16 October 2017.[929][930][931] 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.[932][933]

A large bust of John Major by Shenda Amery in Huntingdon Library was unveiled by his wife Norma in 1993.[934]

A painting of John Major by Diccon Swan is on display at the Carlton Club, and was unveiled by his wife Norma in 1994.[935][936] The National Portrait Gallery holds two paintings of Major – the first official portrait of him as Prime Minister, painted by Peter Deighan in 1994,[937][938] and one of John and Norma by John Wonnacott, painted in 1997.[939]

There is a large John Major Suite at The Oval, home to Surrey County Cricket Club; the venue also contains a painting of Major.[940]

There is a 'Heritage in Sutton' plaque on St Helier Hospital, where John Major was born in 1943,[941] 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),[942] Hamerton Zoo Park, Hamerton (1990),[943] Cadbury World, Birmingham (1991),[944] a tree commemorating the restoration of the River Mill pub, Eaton Socon,[945] the gardens at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon (2009),[946] the North Terminal extension at Gatwick Airport (2011),[947] Huntingdonshire Football Association headquarters, Huntingdon (2015),[948] and Alconbury Weald cricket pitch (2019).[949]

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.[950][951] 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.[952]


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[953]
Chequy Vert and Azure over all a Portcullis Or in chief three Torteaux Gules[954]
Adeste comites (Rally round, comrades)
Other elements
Garter circlet and appended Companion of Honour insignia[955]
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


  1. ^ 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]
  2. ^ John also had two other half-siblings from his father's affairs which he was not to learn of until much later.[11]
  3. ^ 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]
  4. ^ Major was later to learn that the flat was in fact owned by his half-brother Tom Moss.[23]
  5. ^ In the 1999 BBC documentary The Major Years, Major can be seen getting visibly upset when recalling this episode.[28]
  6. ^ 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]
  7. ^ The department was later split in two in 1988.[112]
  8. ^ Major was also appointed to the Privy Council at this time.[125]
  9. ^ Walters resigned soon after.[159]
  10. ^ 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.[169]
  11. ^ This was later enacted under Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown in 1998.[186]
  12. ^ The following day the paper ran with the equally infamous headline 'It's The Sun Wot Won It'.[280]
  13. ^ Patten was subsequently sent to Hong Kong, becoming the colony's last British Governor.[289]
  14. ^ Royal Mail was later privatised under David Cameron in 2013.[350]
  15. ^ The Act famously defined rave music as any "wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats."[375]
  16. ^ The games were ultimately awarded to Sydney, Australia.[410]
  17. ^ However the age of consent was still higher than that for heterosexuals, which was set at 16. The age of consent was later equalised in 2000 under Tony Blair.[420]
  18. ^ The ancient stone had for centuries formed part of the coronation ceremony of Scotland's monarchs, but had been taken by England's King Edward I in 1296 and worked into his coronation chair.[478]
  19. ^ The relationship was memorably symbolised by footage of Redwood attempting to sing the Welsh national anthem in 1993, despite clearly not knowing the words.[485]
  20. ^ Clark was also involved in an unrelated scandal involving the revelation of an affair with the wife and both daughters of a South African judge.[547]
  21. ^ When it emerged that Portillos's supporters had rapidly installed a large number of new telephone lines in a potential campaign headquarters, Major quipped in the House of Commons "that the speed at which these matters can be done is a tribute to privatisation".[588]
  22. ^ Major also put the intelligence services MI6 and GCHQ on a legal footing for the first time.[635]
  23. ^ This conflict visited Britain directly in July 1994, when Palestinian terrorists attempted to blow up the Israeli embassy in London with a car bomb.[643]
  24. ^ Hussein would remain in power until being removed by a US-led coalition during the 2003 Iraq War.[671]
  25. ^ The maxim referred to is Johnson's comment about J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson had once sought a way to remove Hoover from his post as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but upon realising that the problems involved in such a plan were insurmountable, he accepted Hoover's presence philosophically, reasoning that it would be "better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in".[696]
  26. ^ In 2011 the then-Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind accepted that the arms embargo was a "serious mistake" by the UN.[731]
  27. ^ A year after Major left office another war broke out in the region when Kosovo attempted to secede from Yugoslavia; this time international intervention was much swifter and a repeat of the Bosnian debacle was avoided.[740][741]
  28. ^ Note that Rwanda was not a member of the Commonwealth at this time, joining only in 2009.[760]
  29. ^ On one such visit Major met current Russian President Vladimir Putin, then acting as a senior adviser to Anatoly Sobchak, Mayor of St Petersburg.[774]
  30. ^ Russia was later suspended from the Group in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea.[776]


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Works cited

Further reading

  • Anderson, Bruce (1991). John Major: The Making of the Prime Minister. Fourth Estate Classic House. ISBN 978-1-872180-54-0.
  • 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. S2CID 144521737.
  • 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 978-0-00-255558-6., covers his term as Chancellor.
  • Dorey, Peter, ed. (1999). The Major Premiership: Politics and Policies under John Major, 1990–97. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-73681-4.
  • Ellis, Nesta Wyn (1991). John Major: A Personal Biography. Time Warner Books UK. ISBN 978-0-356-20304-1.
  • Foley, Michael (2003). John Major, Tony Blair & a Conflict of Leadership: Collision Course. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-6316-9.
  • Hickson, Kevin; Williams, Ben (2017). John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister?: Reappraising John Major. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78590-067-9.
  • Hogg, Sarah; Hill, Jonathan (1995). Too Close to Call: Power and Politics; John Major in No. 10. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-87716-9.
  • 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 978-0-14-023874-7.
  • Kavanagh, Dennis; Seldon, Anthony, eds. (1994). The Major Effect: An Overview of John Major's Premiership. Pan Books, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-333-62273-5.
  • Pearce, Edward (1991). The Quiet Rise of John Major. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-81208-1.
  • Reitan, Earl A. (2002). The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7425-2202-2.

Primary sources

External links