John Major's government [1992-1997] was in disarray almost from the start due to scandals, divisions over Europe and a recession. Major was enraged by the disloyalty of his Cabinet and in an outburst picked up by a television microphone he thought was switched off, labeled three of his ministers “bastards.” Despite its instability, Major's government managed to soldier on for nearly five years.
As Prime Minister Sir John Major oversaw Britain's longest period of continuous economic growth and the beginning of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The son of a trapeze artist, music-hall entertainer and purveyor of garden gnomes, he was painted as a complex man full of insecurities, suppressed rage and an educational and social chippiness he could never overcome. He had an image of no backbone and being rather boring.
John Major was born in 1943 in Carshalton, Surrey, but raised in Brixton. Unlike many Prime Ministers of the 20th century, he did not attend university after leaving school at 16. Major entered politics at a young age as an active Young Conservative in Brixton and stood as a candidate for Lambeth Council aged only 21, winning the seat and becoming chairman of the Housing Committee. He stood for Parliament twice in 1974 in St Pancras, losing both times before winning Huntingdonshire in 1979.
In 1981 he became a ministerial aide and then a minister himself in 1985. Soon a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Entering Cabinet in 1987 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he won the admiration and respect of his colleagues due to his ability to keep spending down. He was then promoted to Foreign Secretary in 1989 and Chancellor of the Exchequer soon after that.
When Thatcher fell, he fought and won a shrewd campaign to succeed her, and went on to win a remarkable general election victory in 1992. Following Margaret Thatcher, John Major became Prime Minister and attempted to make peace between both party and country in the wake of a divisive decade. He took a leading role, alongside US President George HW Bush, in the first Gulf War, and survived an IRA mortar attack on Number 10 during a Cabinet meeting.
He won the 1992 general election, with the Conservatives receiving the highest number of popular votes in history but with a smaller majority of 21, which itself was reduced in by-election defeats during the parliament. This victory was on the back of reversing the unpopular poll tax, Community Charge, which was introduced at the end of the Thatcher government.
Every US Presidential inauguration sets off debate at British think tank seminars and on UK editorial pages about the sustainability of the special relationship under a new U.S. President. The debate this year, however, was louder than at any recent time, as the "passport-gate" affair sent shivers through the UK chattering class about the relationship between newly-elected President Clinton and Prime Minister John Major. In the weeks before the election, Bush Adminisrtion staff had scoured the passport files of Clinton, looking for a “silver bullet” that would kill off the Democratic nominee’s presidential hopes.
After this election, however, his fortunes changed. Five months into the new parliament, Major was forced to abandon a leading part of his economic policy: membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Intended to keep inflation low by linking exchange rates to the Deutschmark, the markets forced the UK out after government spent billions trying to buck the market.
The Major government was the subject of a number of press stories about infidelity and poor moral behaviour both within the Cabinet and wider party. The label of ‘Tory sleaze’ stuck and lost Major’s government further credibility.
During his years as Prime Minister, Major had to deal with his predecessor (Maggie) who simply wouldn't let go of the reins of power. He had to deal with rebels in his own party, who were so anti-European that they voted against anything and everything that came from their own government. He had to deal with colleagues who were shown to be less than honest in their dealings. If John Major had one weakness, it was that he didn't get rid of those of his ministers who were stabbing him in the back.
The economy picked up after leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and, under Major, Britain’s longest period of continuous economic growth began. He also began work engaging with the IRA to work towards a peaceful end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, his work there leading the way for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
A fresh round of conflict began within his own party over Europe. He secured a number of opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty regarding social policy and membership of the single currency – but this was not enough for a number of his colleagues. Throughout the rest of his time as Prime Minister, he suffered from continued attacks from his own party and Cabinet on Europe, which played a role in destabilising the government.
Relations between Britain and Europe was the issue that more than any other wrecked his government. John Major said it himself - if he had been the only candidate in the 1997 election he would have come second. New Labour under Tony Blair appropriated (Major bluntly says "stole") basic Tory social and fiscal policies. The usual view of his premiership is of an interlude between the eras of Thatcher and Blair.
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