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.

So how did he manage it? I suspect that the author of the first of these books would admit that his researches do not provide a very convincing explanation, beyond the fact that he was Mrs Thatcher’s personal choice as her successor. Indeed, she actually got down in the electoral gutter in the moment of her own humiliation to tout for votes for her favourite. Bruce Anderson has nevertheless written the best of the three journalists’ books on the Major succession to be published so far. That is not entirely surprising, since his credentials are unusually good. Not only was he an admired (by me, at any rate – his employers foolishly sacked him) right-wing columnist for the Sunday Telegraph: he had unrivalled contacts with the Thatcher ‘family’ in Whitehall. For that reason alone (and there were others – he has an enjoyably robust style), he was always worth reading on a Sunday morning. He was in some ways The Word Made Flesh, and that was presumably why he was a welcome member of the Major campaign team during the second ballot of the Tory leadership contest. Unemployed as he was, he no doubt wrote many of those articles which appeared under Mr Major’s name in various newspapers during the campaign – which may be why they read better than some examples of the genre.

Nevertheless, these sorts of book are in perpetual danger of sliding from hard-nosed reportage into a glutinous ‘lives of the saints’ approach to their subjects and their immediate associates. Alas, Mr Anderson’s book does not escape this syndrome, even though he is plainly outraged by the way in which his real heroine was bundled out of office. One suspects that, had Major not been Mrs T’s choice, Bruce would have gone for his vitals instead of smothering him in Nivea Cream. As it is, the first half of the book (recounting in suitably breathless detail the events which led up to Mrs Thatcher’s fall) is well up to the Anderson standard. The rest, which deals with the life and times of J. Major from his notoriously humble beginnings to the final apotheosis, frequently slips into sickly hagiography, spiced with the settlement of a few old scores, some Mr Major’s and some Mr Anderson’s.

Thus the accounts of the campaign team’s efforts from their temporary HQ in Gayfere Street are larded with sentences like ‘Mr Maclean, a shrewd, witty, tough-minded Highlander who has also been a whip, was an admirable member of the bunker ...’ There are endless lists of names – all wonderful, wonderful people, of course – plus remarks like ‘the discussions never remained solemn for long – every few minutes the room would erupt with laughter, usually at some bleary-eyed sarcasm from David Davis. Francis Maude, laughing louder than anyone, would then restore everyone to order.’

On the other hand, Mr Anderson neatly decapitates a few enemies. One of them is the unfortunate David Shaw, MP for Dover, who is claimed to have laid down conditions for giving his vote to Mr Major. These are recorded as a new bypass for Dover, a new wing for the local hospital, and a guarantee that no public money will be spent on the Channel Tunnel rail link. Mr Anderson assures us that no undertakings were given to this enterprising fellow, but perhaps we ought to keep a close eye on Dover in the years to come. Another victim turns out to be Mr Charles Moore, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph and one of the people who had a part in the absurd episode which led to Mr Anderson’s dismissal. He is described as disdainful and patronising during an interview with Mr Major, who would not put up with it – an encounter which is alleged to have led to ‘an unworthy phase in Tory journalism’, whatever that may mean.

In spite of Mr Anderson’s evident desire to do the best he can for his subject, however, he has no more success than other authors, profile writers, interviewers and plain reporters in revealing who John Major really is, and exactly what he stands for. On the other hand, he does provide a few clues, though I suspect more by accident than design, since some of them do not show his substitute hero in a particularly good light. For a start, he reveals that Mr Major did indeed hear something very like Mr Wilson’s call to ambition as long ago as 1987, when he was Chief Secretary. But instead of a British Rail sleeper, it reached him through the lapping of canal water on the side of a narrow-boat during a family holiday with another Tory MP, the somewhat wet Robert Atkins. During that trip he asked Mr Atkins point blank whether there was any realistic possibility of him becoming prime minister. Anderson records that the two men decided there and then that there was, but that his best tactic was to avoid being identified with any one wing of the party and ‘continue to allow the largest possible number of his colleagues to conclude that his views were broadly in agreement with theirs.’ Mr Anderson rightly remarks that this sounds very like an exercise in cynical calculation, and he concedes that Major has been a calculator throughout his career. But he hastens to assure us that it is less cynical than it looks, because Mr Major had no intention of repudiating his patroness and her political ideology: all he wanted to do was set a new agenda for the Nineties.

But one is immediately tempted to ask why he didn’t go about doing exactly that, making a few keynote speeches on matters of profound political philosophy and the like? Well, says Mr Anderson, he hadn’t got the time, and in any case he would have been accused of seeking the leadership if he had. Exactly, M’Lud. Or, as Mr Anderson prefers to put it: ‘John Major did not set out his stall; that would have to wait until he was prime minister.’

Mr Anderson also records that Mr Major changed his mind not once but twice about British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System. He apparently started out in favour of joining, but later (surprise, surprise) found himself in agreement with Herself on the matter. As this was during his stint at the Treasury under Chancellor Lawson, who was determined to get Britain in by hook or by crook, he apparently decided he’d better not disagree openly with his immediate superior, though he did tell him his views privately. Then, when he steps over Geoffrey Howe’s bloodstains and arrives at the Foreign Office, Mr Major changes his mind again and becomes a supporter of British entry into the ERM. Anderson acknowledges that this looks suspiciously like the fell hand of the FO at work, but vigorously denies the charge. His hero reached his conclusion all by himself, he insists. On the other hand, he didn’t tell Margaret about his conversion. If he had, says Anderson, ‘she would have lost all faith in his judgment of foreign affairs, and in her own favourable assessment of his merits.’

But when Mr Major returned to the Treasury as Chancellor, this time stepping over Mr Lawson’s bloodstains, he finally came clean with Mrs Thatcher. One reason for the change was that her own beloved markets – the ones she says you can’t buck – had reached the conclusion that her government couldn’t be regarded as serious about fighting inflation unless we joined the ERM. Another was that she herself was being worn down by the relentless pressure. So he got his way, with a little help from Douglas Hurd, and it is arguably the sole significant achievement of his political career up until the moment he became PM. It is also arguably the most significant factor in condemning this country to the most sustained and damaging recession since the Thirties.

So there you are: that is the story of the man who is now, to everyone’s astonishment, the new tenant of Number Ten, as told by a man who clearly regards himself as a devoted acolyte, even if the object of this devotion is only second best to Mrs Thatcher. One can only conclude that we now have a prime minister who makes Harold Wilson and Harold Macmillan look like amateurs when it comes to trimming. What other construction can be placed on the story of the narrow-boat, the deliberate decision to dissemble in order to keep in with all those who might back him for the premiership, the concealment of his views from his prime minister lest she withdraw the support which was the one vital ingredient in his bid to succeed her?

In his defence, two points can be made. The first is that Mr Anderson may be wrong about all this. But in view of his access to Mr Major, and the evident willingness of his closest allies to talk freely to him, it is hard to imagine that the basic facts can be wrong. Someone told the author all these things, knowing they would be reproduced sympathetically. But even put sympathetically, they are damning.

The second point is more Wilsonian. For the evidence points strongly to the conclusion that Mr Major is a man without strong opinions of any kind. Unlike his patroness, he dislikes ideology, is constitutionally incapable of passion about politics, sees very little in the application of principle to the business of government, and looks on his job as the strictly pragmatic one of keeping the show on the road, holding the Party together, winning the next election and hoping for the best. To consider such a man guilty of dishonesty just for dissembling a bit here and concealing a bit there is surely a trifle unfair. Only true men of principle are capable of true betrayal. Men without principles (as distinct from unprincipled men) cannot betray what they never had.

Meanwhile Anderson has told us that the setting out of Mr Major’s stall would have to wait until he actually became prime minister. What he did not add was that it would take nine months of Whitehall wrangling before that stall was stacked with goods, even though it had acquired a glamorous title rather earlier than that. The Citizens’ Charter, it now turns out, is what Majorism is all about. It starts from the admirably unThatcherite assumption that public services are useful things, and ought to be made to work. But since it heaps new obligations on them without providing a halfpenny new money, perhaps we are entitled to amend its name. Citizen Micawber’s Charter might be nearer the mark – or better still, Conservative Party Election Manifesto.

Which brings me to Nicholas Ridley’s contribution to the same debate. Like Mr Anderson, he was a devotee of Mrs Thatcher. But he hasn’t found it quite so easy to switch his loyalties to her successor. He continues to smoulder with hatred for the ‘lesser’ people in the ‘ruthless and cruel’ Conservative Party who brought her down. Above all, he blames Nigel Lawson for precipitating the economic crisis which he believes was the underlying cause of her fall. Not that Mr Ridley says anything beastly about John Major. He just doesn’t say anything very admiring about him. This is perhaps not entirely surprising, since it would be hard to retain enough spare admiration for anybody after the quantity of the stuff he heaps on Mrs Thatcher.

But at least Mr Ridley recognises that there were important matters at stake in her fall from office. This is in sharp contrast to Mr Anderson’s account, in which he says more than once that if only the lady had chosen Tristan Garel Jones (did I hear someone say ‘Who?’) as her Chief Whip last year instead of Tim Renton, and had had someone a bit less laid-back than Peter Morrison (‘who?’ again) as her Parliamentary Private Secretary, then she would still be in residence at Number 10. There is just enough truth in this contention to stop one dismissing it out of hand, but I prefer Mr Ridley’s version. For the essential reason why the ‘lesser men’ of the ‘ruthless and cruel’ Tory Party chucked her out was that they didn’t think she’d save their seats for them at the next election. And the reason why they thought that was the state of the economy.

The whispy hair and cascades of cigarette ash down the woolly cardigan, coupled with that old-fashioned clipped accent, give the impression of a slightly dotty college tutor rather than an experienced Cabinet Minister. Even Mr Ridley seems to share this view of himself, more or less admitting that he wasn’t really suited to the rough and tumble of the political game as played at Westminster. But that doesn’t alter the fact that he has a case when he points the finger at Nigel Lawson as the man who messed it all up by his determination to get Britain into the ERM, and to behave as if we already were in it during the long period when Mrs Thatcher blocked his way to Brussels. Nor has he any great reason to feel warm towards the Lawson family: it was, after all, Nigel’s son Dominic who conducted and then published the interview which ended Mr Ridley’s political career. Indeed, the Lawsons père et fils were at it again the other day, when young Dominic chose his father to review Ridley’s book for the Spectator. Needless to say, the review was somewhat unfavourable.

Yet there is something rather pathetic about this increasingly personal vendetta. For it is at least arguable that Mr Ridley and Mr Lawson were much more significant figures in the formation of Thatcherism as a coherent ideology than, say, Keith Joseph or even Geoffrey Howe. Mr Ridley was the man who drew up the original Thatcher checklist of ‘things to do on gaining Office’ – published by the Economist before the 1979 Election. The most notable item on the list was the plan to provoke a strike with Arthur Scargill and the miners and thus disarm the crack regiment of organised labour. It was Mr Lawson, as Energy Secretary, who heaped up the coal stocks needed for the victory when Mr Scargill flung himself into Mr Ridley’s well-signalled elephant trap.

We now await Mr Lawson’s own version of these same events, with Herself’s account somewhere hull down over the horizon. No doubt we shall read both with care, and perhaps even excitement. But on the other hand, perhaps not. Though it is probably true that Mrs Thatcher’s fall was the most extraordinary domestic political event this century, there must be a limit to the number of times one can bear to read overlapping versions.