Boris should learn from Major’s mistakes and leave No 10 now

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Why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book, was Aneurin Bevan’s wise advice years ago. That is exactly what we should do amid the current storm engulfing Westminster, by considering whether the disastrous defeat John Major suffered in 1997, after he had secured victory for the Tories in 1992, holds any lessons for the Tory backbenchers considering whether Boris should stay or go. 

If these backbenchers should learn anything from the Major years, during which I was Secretary of State for National Heritage, it is that the Tory party would do well to get rid of a leader whose day is done. 

Can it ever be glad confident morning again for Boris, after his reputation has been so trashed, especially over his respect — or lack of it — for the truth? He’s getting a bit like Harold Wilson, whose reputation as a liar led to all manner of jokes. “How can you tell when Harold Wilson is lying?”. “His lips move”. Once a prime minister becomes a laughing stock, the road to the cliff marked oblivion is too clearly signposted to ignore. 

John Major and Boris Johnson seem an unlikely pairing I know, but not really. Both were bigger than the game for a brief but significant period, pulling off difficult to predict election victories. Faced with Neil Kinnock’s risible imitation of a capering ape at that notorious election rally just before the 1992 poll, the voters took refuge in decent, straightforward, grey but likeable John Major, when the Tories should really have lost. 

Similarly, the voters were attracted to the different charms of Boris Johnson, whose rock star appeal gave his party an unexpected majority of 80, allowing him to “get Brexit done”, even if not much else was achieved. 

John Major soon ran out of road as Tony Blair replaced Kinnock, just as Keir Starmer, boring and lawyer-like though he may be, is a very different proposition to Jeremy Corbyn. If Major had gone mid-term, his reputation would have stood high. And had he been replaced by, say, Michael Heseltine, the 1997 election could have been a much closer run thing. 

Instead, Major became embittered by “the bastards”. He resubmitted his leadership to the test (something Boris would be crazy to do) and stumbled on to a horrendous defeat, because trying to get anyone, let alone a prime minister, to change their entire personality is an impossible task. 

Major couldn’t manage it, and nor will Johnson, since his personality is at the core of his political existence. Once you get beneath the Prime Minister’s engaging, jovial charisma, what else has he got to offer? A solid grounding in policy? Hardly. A capability to lead the country through the cost of living crisis it is about to endure? Not much evidence of that, I’m afraid to say. 

If Johnson stays on, the next few months will test his leadership capabilities to breaking point and he has no fundamental beliefs to fall back on. He is his own triumphalist, but is Johnson really a Conservative? This is the question Tory MPs will be asking as they consider what comes next. My view is that we don’t yet have evidence he is a Conservative.

So judge Boris please, oh dear Tory MPs, not on what happened in May 2020, but what may happen in May 2022, when the country faces a horrid combination of inflation, spiking energy bills and higher taxes. If the Conservative party whatever remains of its reputation for sound economic management, what will it have left? In the immortal words of the late Paul Daniels, “Not a lot!”. 

The Tories should heed Cromwell’s essential message to the Long Parliament, and tell Boris: “You have stayed too long in this place for any good you can do.  In the name of God, go!”  And I wager, though he’s probably too decent ever to say so, John Major would agree.

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