I’ll have to admit a guilty secret of mine: I’ve got a bit of a political soft spot for John Major. Maybe it was the Steve Bell image of his underpants, but more likely it was his management of a Tory party in the 1990s that was trying to tear itself apart: while most recall Cone Hotlines and dubious dalliances with Edwina Curry, I chose to look at his nursing through of Maastricht ratification and his bluff-calling of sceptic elements.
All of which makes today’s speech by Major on the EU and the need for a referendum all the more surprising to me. The first rule of political management is to only fight on your terms. Major always understood this, such as when he called a leadership contest in 1995 in order to flush out grumbling backbenchers like John Redwood: in the face of a party that ultimately put winning the next election above (large) differences in policy, they backed down and gave Major his head. It was when Major was blocked in that he was at his weakest, for instance in having to make the final votes on Maastricht matters of confidence.
The second rule is that balm should be spread, to allow for at least a superficial reconciliation and for opponents to retreat with some honour: no one likes to get kicked over in public (as the famous ‘bastards’ quote highlighted). Thus Major was very rarely doctrinaire in his approach, instead highlighting paths for constructive engagement and generally trying not to close doors to cooperation. Even when waging his beef wars over BSE in the mid-1990s, one never had the sense that his heart was fully in it, and the outcome largely reflected that.
The third rule is that no one likes a backseat driver. Major, of all people, knows this, having had the proverbial mother of all backseat drivers on his case throughout his premiership. Thatcher never could let go – something that one has the impression has maintained her aura in the party, as a mark of her principles – while Major has been almost invisible since 1997. His recognition that the party needed clarity of leadership and unity of the grandees was always there, even if his successors didn’t then turn that into electoral success.
Today’s speech will break all three rules. The referendum issue is owned by eurosceptics (of whom Major is not one), even after Cameron’s speech last month. They can credibly claim to have invented it and to have pushed it onto the political agenda. As such, all efforts by either pro-Europeans or pragmatists to re-appropriate or recast it as an opportunity to debate EU membership and thereby embed the UK’s position in the Union start on the back foot. Likewise, the speech will more likely inflame passions and annoy the party leadership than the reverse: a central gambit of Cameron’s speech was to try and defuse the issue until the 2015 election, hopefully leaving Labour in the difficult position of justifying themselves.
That gambit hasn’t worked so far, which makes Major’s speech all the more awkward. Even if the intention is well-meant, Major’s percieved flip-flopping on the EU will more likely give succor to Tory backbenchers that they have rattled the cage of the leadership. Last week’s budget settlement, with its largely unanticipated reductions in spending, has been seen by those same elements as a vindication of pushing Cameron towards a harder line (even if the evidence suggests that the UK’s position was the least of it).
Currently, sceptics feel that they are on a roll, and as any good political manager knows, sometimes the best thing is to let that peter out by itself, rather than try to resist. Maybe that’s a lesson Major needs to consider.