POT, KETTLE, BLACK

Boris MajorThe televising of Parliament is something it’s so easy to take for granted now that it’s hard to remember a day when it wasn’t the norm. Yet, in terms of the centuries-old timeline of the British Parliamentary system, it is a remarkably recent innovation; the Palace of Westminster was very much a closed shop to the electorate for most of its existence, with debates in the chamber only accessible through written accounts in newspapers 24 hours after the event; for generations, every Commons utterance accessed by the public was relayed via the Parliamentary reporter, a post once famously held by Charles Dickens in his early working life as a journalist. No doubt some of his uniquely rich characterisations in fiction received an inspirational boost as he observed some of those rotten borough rogues in action.

After a trial broadcast on BBC radio in the mid-70s – one that was met with strong opposition from many quarters keen to retain the ‘mystique’ of the process – the go-ahead was finally given for regular sound-only transmissions from Parliament in 1978. For the first time, the people could actually hear their elected representatives squaring up to one another on a daily basis. Previously, televised debates at locations such as the Oxford Union were the only opportunity to experience political jousting outside of the conference season or campaign trail, and even just hearing the debating chamber of the Commons was an ear-opening revelation. If anything, many listeners quickly realised why politicians were so eager to keep Parliament hidden behind closed doors; the behaviour of MPs was far from gentlemanly and the lid being lifted on their rowdy gatherings didn’t exactly raise their esteem amongst voters.

When television cameras finally made it inside Parliament in the mid-80s, caution over actually seeing MPs carrying on this way, and how it might negatively affect the public’s perception of them even further, led to the safer option of the Lords serving as the guinea pig. What MPs didn’t anticipate was that the retirement home for yesterday’s men would provide a platform for canny old campaigners to stage one last defiant dig at their successors. Harold Macmillan had stepped down as Prime Minister as far back as 1963, yet in 1984 the then-90 year-old elder statesman made his maiden speech in the House of Lords by delivering a damning critique of the Thatcher Government’s handling of the Miners’ Strike. Supermac had previously enjoyed relatively good relations with Mrs T, but as someone who had represented a North-East mining constituency in the Commons – and had indeed taken his title, Earl of Stockton, from the region – Macmillan seized his chance and let rip.

‘It breaks my heart to see…what is happening in our country today,’ he said. ‘This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in…there is the growing division of comparative prosperity in the south and an ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different types of people.’ Greeted with a standing ovation (no mean feat in the Lords) and widely reported, Macmillan’s missive came hot on the heels of the long-standing digs at Mrs Thatcher by her immediate predecessor Ted Heath; it was a timely reminder for all Prime Ministers that previous tenants of No.10 (especially those from their own party) are always lurking somewhere in the background, keeping a keen eye on the progress of those who superseded them and forever ready to pass withering judgement. So, should it come as a great surprise that the most damning criticism of Boris Johnson this past week has come from Sir John Major?

As far as I’m aware, the word ‘sleaze’ didn’t constitute part of Major’s criticism of Bo-Jo’s administration in the wake of the Owen Paterson affair, though perhaps that’s just as well. His own government was so mired in sleaze by its dying days that for a man who himself had been giving Edwina Currie one on the side to target Johnson’s infamous philandering would have been a tad hypocritical. However, the fact that the current controversy surrounding the Government centres around lobbying means that a man who’d led an administration bogged-down by ‘cash for questions’ has to tread carefully if his criticism can avoid the inevitable title of this post being evoked. Boris seeking to move the goalposts in order to prevent the 30 day suspension of the MP for what the Commons Standards Committee called ‘an egregious case of paid advocacy’ has been roundly condemned by opposition parties, though critics at Westminster should be careful what they do with those stones in their palms when hanging around this particular glass house. The practice of which Owen Paterson stands accused is far from exclusive to the Tories and can often appear endemic in Parliament.

The end result of the Conservative Party’s shabby efforts to block the recommendation of the Standards Committee to suspend Paterson – followed by a call for an overhaul of the MPs’ watchdog – is an imminent by-election, with Paterson choosing to quit his North Shropshire seat over the mess. In some respects, Paterson had a fair point when he bemoaned the right of MPs to appeal against judgements arising from the internal investigatory process, but the handling of such criticism seemingly on his behalf was done badly. Boris might have embarked upon yet one more U-turn in the wake of the affair, but further damage has been done to an already fairly damaged brand. John Major weighed into the debate on the ‘Today’ programme, adding another layer to a long-standing enmity that stretches back at least as far as Brexit. As a staunch Europhile and Remainer campaigner five years ago, the former PM (whose vote for Theresa May’s successor went to Jeremy Hunt) called Johnson’s Government ‘politically corrupt’; he went on to say that ‘this government has done a number of things that have concerned me deeply. They have broken the law, the prorogation of Parliament, they have broken treaties…they have broken their word on many occasions.’

When comparisons with the sleaze of his own administration were invariably raised, Major responded by admitting it was ‘immensely damaging’, yet covered his back by reminding the interviewer he’d set up a committee to investigate and prevent any recurrence of the ‘cash for questions’ scandal. He sees a stark difference with the way in which Boris & Co have reacted to their own scandal. ‘Over the last few days,’ he said, ‘we have seen today’s government trying to defend this sort of behaviour…there’s a general whiff of “We are the masters now” about their behaviour. It has to stop, it has to stop soon. I have been a Conservative all my life, and I am concerned at how this government is behaving. I suspect lots of other people are as well. It seems to me, as a lifelong Conservative, that much of what they are doing is un-Conservative in its behaviour.’

Like Boris Johnson, John Major succeeded to the post of Prime Minister following the forced removal of his predecessor – in both cases a woman, oddly enough – and then went on to win a General Election in his own right. It’s fair to say that Major was a largely unknown entity outside Westminster when he became PM, something of a blank slate after a decade of Mrs Thatcher dominating everybody’s lives; Boris, on the other hand, had been around as a household name for a long time when he grabbed the premiership, and the majority of his flaws and failings were already well-established. An attack from a former PM of Boris’ own party probably stings more than if, say, Tony Blair had launched a similar tirade; but at the same time Major hasn’t really said anything about Johnson and his administration that most of us didn’t think anyway. TV cameras had crept into the Commons merely a year before John Major became PM, whereas Boris Johnson has grown up in public before the full glare of the 24-hour media. His career is a political ‘Truman Show’ and just as we have watched his rise live on TV, we will also watch his fall when it happens. Given the state of the opposition, however, I’m not programming a series link into my telly just yet.

© The Editor

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NICE ‘N’ SLEAZY

Whilst that odious Jabba Tom Watson weeps crocodile tears over the suicide of Carl Sargeant, seemingly oblivious to the blood on his own hands, the excuse for an administration perched on the opposing benches could have done without what passes for a ‘sex scandal’ in 2017, certainly on top of everything else. But whilst rolling news channels prefer the ridiculous spectacle of helicopters trailing a returning member of the Cabinet en route from Heathrow to No.10 as though she was OJ Simpson being chased by the LAPD, there’s nothing the tabloid end of Fleet Street loves more than what happens, as Peter Wyngarde once said, ‘when sex leers its inquisitive head’. Parallels with John Major’s similarly shambolic Cabinet have come thicker and faster in recent weeks, though it’s no great surprise. One has to go back 25 years to find the nearest comparison of a governing party so viciously divided over Europe and simultaneously saddled with wandering hands.

When the disaster of Black Wednesday hit and Britain was forced to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a move that cost the Treasury £3.3 billion as desperate attempts to defend sterling’s value proved futile, the same week saw the resignation of high-profile Major Minister David Mellor, following a proper sex scandal. The fact Major dithered over replacing Norman Lamont, his Chancellor during Black Wednesday also suggested the PM was weak and indecisive; even though the economy was slowly improving and unemployment was beginning to fall, confidence in the nation’s leader had plummeted. The inauguration of Back to Basics, unveiled at the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, was seen by many as an attempt by Major to salvage his dwindling reputation and appeal to the right-wing tabloids that had begun to waver in their support.

In retrospect, Back to Basics can be held responsible for the public perception of the Tories as the ‘nasty party’ as much as any of the divisive policies pursued by Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. Hallmarks of Tory policy that have continued into this century via the likes of IDS were key to this horrible, desperate gamble by Major, singling out a small section of society as the cause of society’s ills, safe in the knowledge that this small section were powerless to fight back.

Along with single mothers, there were criticisms of soft sentencing on the part of the justice system, painting a picture of Britain’s inner cities as lawless hotbeds of unchecked criminality; illegal raves were also held up as a further example of the country’s lapse into immoral anarchy. The blame game is always a sure sign that an administration has run out of ideas, and whilst Major’s accusations chimed with editorials in some of Fleet Street’s more reactionary publications, the vast majority of the press and public found the whole Back to Basics project utterly ludicrous. And, as luck would have it, within a few months of Back to Basics being unveiled, a steady stream of scandals emanating from the Tory party undermined Major’s credibility and highlighted the hypocrisy at the heart of this most ill-advised of political projects.

In 1990, Tory MP Tim Yeo had made a speech in which he declared – ‘It is in everyone’s interest to reduce broken families and the numbers of single parents. I have seen from my own constituency the consequences of marital breakdown’. Just three months after the launch of Back to Basics, the man John Major had appointed Minister for the Environment and Countryside was forced to resign when the press revealed Yeo had fathered a ‘love child’ with a Tory councillor. The same month as Tim Yeo quit the Cabinet, John Major’s Government also lost its leading Peer when the Earl of Caithness resigned following the suicide of his wife, who had shot herself upon discovering her husband’s affair with another woman. The following month, Stephen Milligan – MP for Eastleigh, a former journalist and ‘rising star’ of the Tory Party – was found dead in his flat from apparent autoerotic asphyxiation, strangled by an electrical cord with an orange stuffed in his mouth; elements of cross-dressing and self-bondage made this bizarre, lurid tragedy a gift for the more sensationalist corners of Fleet Street. It also triggered a by-election that was won by the Liberal Democrats, dealing a further humiliating blow to John Major’s shaky administration.

But these weren’t the only scandals to affect the Conservatives in the middle of the 90s. There was also was the Cash-for-questions affair, involving ‘The Egyptian Grocer’ and Neil Hamilton – Minister for Deregulation and Corporate Affairs, no less – not to mention the dramatic downfall of Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Aitken’s libel proceedings against allegations by both the Guardian and ITV’s ‘World in Action’ dragged on for two years, but resulted in him being charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice and receiving a sentence of eighteen months behind bars. His cell wouldn’t be vacant for long, however.

Jeffrey Archer, one of the most public advocates of Back to Basics, was brought back into the Tory frontline by John Major, who elevated him to the peerage. Archer had evaded prosecution over the Anglia Television ‘shares affair’ in 1994, but when he was selected as Tory candidate for the London Mayoral Election five years later, Rupert Murdoch’s newfound love-in with Labour saw the News of the World dredge up Archer’s 1987 libel case against the Daily Star, when he had been found not guilty of paying a prostitute for her services, and was awarded £50,000 in damages. The new allegations that emerged in 1999 presented strong evidence that Archer had committed perjury during the 1987 libel trial by fabricating an alibi. The Tory Party immediately dropped him as their Mayoral candidate and expelled him from the party for five years. Archer was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice in September 2000 and when the case came to trial in the summer of 2001, Archer was found guilty of the offence and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, of which he served half.

Even though there was a gap of four years between Major’s Government being thrown out of office and Jeffrey Archer’s imprisonment, the fact that notable players in that administration were still being subjected to the long arm of the law underlined how the malodorous odour of corruption and sleaze continued to hover around the Tory Party like the scent of unwashed feet on a Twister mat. When former gaffe-prone Major Minister Edwina Currie later revealed she and Major were engaged in a four-year affair during the 1980s, it was the belated icing on an especially unappetising cake. As things currently stand, Theresa May has yet to bake an equivalent confection; but the stench emanating from the Downing Street kitchen is beginning to linger.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510503885&sr=1-1

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

In a way, I felt I shouldn’t laugh; but everyone on the TV was and I couldn’t help it. Just finding out that Michael Portillo’s other two names were Denzil and Xavier seemed ridiculously hilarious in the context of what was happening. He even smiled himself as the revelation was greeted with rapturous laughter, which was perhaps the first public indication the man had a sense of humour, something that would manifest itself a decade later when he took up residency on Andrew Neil’s late-night sofa and became more known for his garish fashion sense whilst building a new career as a TV train-spotter. Exactly twenty years ago today, however, he was the incumbent Defence Secretary, defending the safe Tory seat of Enfield Southgate.

As soon as the declaration at Enfield Southgate was announced and the baby-faced Labour candidate Stephen Twigg realised he had usurped a household name from his seat, it was the latest in a remarkable sequence of events that night. Anyone who stayed up to watch the results come in on the General Election of 1 May 1997 will recall the domino effect on John Major’s Government as one-by-one prominent Tories and numerous Members of the Cabinet were toppled from their lofty positions. The hardly universally-beloved likes of Edwina Currie, Neil Hamilton and Norman Lamont saw their careers in the Commons go up in smoke; and David Mellor memorably gave his losing speech whilst being heckled by Sir James Goldsmith.

The roll-call of Ministerial casualties included not only Portillo, but Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, whose loss of his Edinburgh Pentlands seat characterised the electoral annihilation the Tories suffered north of the border; they were also obliterated in Wales. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it was a remarkable election evening to witness, unlike any other I’d seen up until that point; and what happened next doesn’t necessarily diminish the memory of that amazing viewing experience.

When Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, I was eleven; when Tony Blair won in 1997, I was twenty-nine. If one looks back eighteen years from today’s perspective, we arrive in 1999, which in some respects doesn’t feel that long ago; but eighteen years from 11 to 29 is a vast expanse of living and learning as the transition from child to adult is undergone. The majority of my life up until 1997 had been lived with the Conservative Party running the country, and it almost felt that anyone other than them governing the rest of us was some distant childhood memory on a par with my first day at school or Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker, something that could never be recaptured.

I’d watched every General Election night on the telly with growing interest in events from 1983 onwards, and every time the result was the same; the Tories seemed to be the political equivalent of the German national football team; they never lost a penalty shoot-out. Despite poll predictions of a Hung Parliament in 1992, the Tories were returned to power with the greatest share of the vote in British history; after that, it really felt as if Britain was destined to be a one-party state for eternity, which is why 1997 was such a shock to the system.

John Major’s administration was fortunate that the swift plummet of its fortunes occurred within months of the Conservative’s historic victory in 1992 and they were able to cling onto power for a full five-year Parliament, hoping that would give them enough time to recover. But events, and Major’s Ministers, ensured that wouldn’t happen. The ERM debacle on Black Wednesday took place in September 1992, and from that point on his government were dead men walking; from Michael Howard squirming under the Paxman spotlight to Archer, Aitken, Hamilton and Mellor, the mid-90s seemed incapable of going seven days without another Tory being caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till. By 1997, sweeping change was as much-needed and inevitable as it had been in 1906, 1945, 1964 and 1979 – and would be in 2010. And, for good or ill, change came.

Re-watching news reports from May 1997 prior to writing this piece, it was interesting to contrast John Major’s departure from Downing Street with Blair’s arrival. Major’s farewell speech was made with him standing before a couple of microphones and no additional embellishments for dramatic effect; his successor, on the other hand, announced the beginning of his reign before the media with his hands resting on a lectern, an item of political furniture that no announcement from the same location can now be made without. Seeing the clip anew, it seemed evident to me that this was Blair the preacher-man with his makeshift pulpit, spreading the Gospel to the masses who were prepared to buy into it; and it appeared the majority were prepared.

This isn’t an attempt to summarise ‘the Blair effect’ over the decade following 1 May 1997; for one thing, there isn’t enough space to do so, and categorising the changes that came about courtesy of the electorate’s choice twenty years ago (not to mention 2001 and 05) would require more than one post, for sure. What’s indisputable is that, in its own way, the result of the 1997 General Election was as significant from a Labour perspective as 1964 had been.

Comparisons with 1945 don’t quite hold up in that Attlee’s administration came to power in unique circumstances and the transformation of the country they brought about was largely benign because nothing could be worse than six years of a world war. As for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the hand of history on his shoulder is just as likely to pat him on the back as it is to stab him in the same spot.

© The Editor

A MAJOR MISTAKE

Well, I wonder, have the ravens flown the Tower? Not as far as I know, but the sky isn’t raining a shower of bank notes down on the populace either. Theresa May today signed a document that could well define her time in Downing Street and could equally decide which direction the UK heads in for the next decade or so; nobody knows what will really happen – apart from Fleet Street, of course, which is telling us all exactly what we can look forward to; mind you, the Brexit battle bus did that too. The first step towards a not-so fond farewell to the EU is underway, but what precisely are we waving goodbye to?

John Major’s recent reappearance on the British political stage, following hot on the heels of his immediate successor Tony Blair, should have served as a potent reminder that what we now recognise as the European Union was established (and endorsed) during his premiership, rather than that of Edward Heath. Major’s early 70s PM predecessor tends to carry a great deal of retrospective blame for Britain’s eventful European adventure, though the Europe that Sailor Ted steered us towards had experienced a game-changing facelift in the thirty years since Heath himself had witnessed the devastation global conflict had wrought upon the continent.

The European Economic Community was an idealistic post-war project intended to do for European trade and industry what the United Nations intended to do for world peace; the triumph of the former, when measured against the limited success of the latter, naturally made it an attractive proposition to countries undergoing economic decline, with the UK foremost amongst them. Long before he led his party, Heath (unlike many Tories at the time) realised Britain urgently required a post-colonial role and he regarded membership of the EEC as the way to achieve one. It took the best part of a decade, but he eventually realised his ambition.

When Heath signed the Treaty of Accession on 22 January 1972 (with Britain’s membership of the EEC coming into effect on 1 January 1973), the bleak situation in Blighty appeared to vindicate his decision. Just two days before Heath signed on the dotted line, unemployment had topped the one million mark; a little over a week later, Bloody Sunday happened. The country was also in the middle of the first official miners’ strike since 1926, one spanning seven weeks and including the infamous forced closure of Birmingham’s Saltley Coke Works; with the nation’s power supply perilously close to running out, the Government capitulated and the NUM recognised the dangerous strength of the cards it held.

Britain’s entry into Europe was marketed as an exciting new dawn for the country; there was even a special concert staged at the London Palladium to mark the occasion, headlined by the biggest band in Britain at the time, Slade. But beneath the PR, there was concern that the nation was surrendering sovereignty to Brussels without the people being consulted; yes, the Treaty of Accession was debated in Parliament and at the party conferences in the months leading up to its ratification, but the electorate had no say in the matter. A shared economic policy with Europe seemed sensible on paper, but when the NUM flexed its muscles again barely a year after Britain joining the Common Market, the country’s fortunes plummeted once more and Heath was out of office.

Following the EEC Referendum instigated by Harold Wilson’s Government in 1975, Britain’s position at the European table in the immediate years after was largely marked by debates over the size of sausages, the imperial Vs metric weights-and-measurements argument, and other silly season stories that were recycled whenever the UK required a lazy scapegoat to attribute its ills to. Margaret Thatcher rarely disguised her antipathy towards the EEC, securing the UK Rebate in 1985 that allowed Britain to reduce its contribution to the organisation’s budget; but it was her successor at No.10 whose actions one could say directly led us to where we are today.

When Britain became a member of the Common Market (on the same day as Ireland and Denmark), the membership of the EEC totalled nine nations; by 1986, only three more had been added. Twelve seemed a nice manageable number, but the dramatic alteration of the continent following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the early 90s not only ruined the Eurovision Song Contest; it had a considerable impact on the EEC. Moves to enlarge the remit of the EEC beyond mere economic issues had been afoot for a long time, but the newly independent nations queuing up to join after the fall of the Berlin Wall presented the Brussels powers-that-be with the opportunity for expansion they’d been looking for, the chance to build the United States of Europe that Churchill foresaw decades before.

John Major was the third successive Tory PM whose term in office was marked by arguments over Europe. When the Maastricht Treaty was drafted at the end of 1991, the prospect of greater European integration and the introduction of a shared currency filled many with horror, albeit not Mr Major. The main opposition to the implementation of Maastricht came from within his own party, the so-called Maastricht Rebels, as well as some members of his Cabinet, whom Major referred to as ‘the bastards’. His Government’s small majority (18) was compounded by 22 rebels, who spent the best part of a year deliberately sabotaging every attempt by Major to get the job done.

Mercifully, Major resisted signing the UK up to the Euro, though Blair was keen for a while; Maastricht was eventually ratified, however, and the bureaucratic monolith that is the EU came into being proper. Maastricht created what we are now divorcing ourselves from, rather than the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and further national powers being devolved to Brussels came with the amendments inherent in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, followed by the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon.

John Major may well have misread the aims and intentions of the EU when Maastricht was drafted, but I don’t believe he was/is that stupid; he must have known what it would amount to and how difficult it would be for the UK to extract itself from the monster Maastricht manufactured. If any single individual could be said to have sold Britain’s sovereignty down the river – if indeed one views membership of the EU as representing just that – it was John Major, not Ted Heath.

© The Editor