Two Men in a Boat

Ian Aitken

  • John Major: The Making of the Prime Minister by Bruce Anderson
    Fourth Estate, 324 pp, £16.99, June 1991, ISBN 1 872180 54 X
  • ‘My Style of Government’: The Thatcher Years by Nicholas Ridley
    Hutchinson, 275 pp, £16.99, July 1991, ISBN 0 09 175051 2

At the height of one of the many leadership crises in the Labour Party during the Fifties or early Sixties, the Crossbencher column of Lord Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express described the young Harold Wilson lying in his sleeper on the night train from Liverpool and listening to the wheels beating out the rhythm: ‘It could be me, it could be me, it could be me.’ It was a delightful conceit, wholly in tune with Beaverbrook’s injunction to his journalists to tell the story, whatever it might be, through the people involved. It suffered, however, from one defect. As Mr Wilson pointed out next morning, he hadn’t travelled to London by train. He’d made the journey by car.

Harold, on the other hand, was careful not to deny the overall sense of the Crossbencher paragraph: namely, that he did indeed think he could become Leader of the Labour Party. He had been in very little doubt about that matter from the moment he became the youngest-ever President of the Board of Trade in the post-war Attlee Government. But it took him 18 years of slithering up and down Disraeli’s greasy pole from the moment of his election to Parliament to the eventual achievement of his goal.

One wonders whether John Major ever heard a similar message click-clacking from railway carriage wheels in the course of his extraordinary non-stop journey up the same greasy pole. There was scarcely time for him to form expectations during the interval that ran from his original ascent to the Cabinet table as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after only two years as a junior minister, his translation to the great office of Foreign Secretary just two years later, and on to the even greater office of Chancellor of the Exchequer a mere four months after that. Little wonder, then, that Prime Minister Major – who accepted the key to 10 Downing Street only 13 months after becoming Chancellor – continues to wear a slightly surprised expression whenever he appears in public. He has a lot to be surprised about, and so have we.

It isn’t just that he soared to the highest elective office in the land only 11 and a half years after becoming an MP in Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory, remarkable though that is in itself. The other reason why he is entitled to be bemused by the whole astonishing chain of events is that he is, by almost anybody’s standards, quite the least charismatic person to hold the premiership this century. Even Attlee, though dry and uncharismatic, had been deputy premier under Winston Churchill through the greatest world war in human history, while John Major isn’t just a grey man with very little public persona – he is a man with extraordinarily little experience beyond his trainee stints at DHSS, the Foreign Office and the Treasury, following a single term as a councillor in Lambeth. Even by the standards of a government which consumed and discarded ministers by the barrowload, his three bouts of departmental experience added up to little more than a trundle through the revolving doors of the front hall before moving on to the next stop. Add to that his notorious lack of formal education and you have just about the most improbable political meteor imaginable.

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