John Major

This article is about the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. For other people with the same name, see John Major (disambiguation).
The Right Honourable
Sir John Major

Major in 1996
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
28 November 1990  2 May 1997
Monarch Elizabeth II
Deputy Michael Heseltine (post-1995)
Preceded by Margaret Thatcher
Succeeded by Tony Blair
Leader of the Opposition
In office
2 May 1997  19 June 1997
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Preceded by Tony Blair
Succeeded by William Hague
Leader of the Conservative Party
In office
28 November 1990  19 June 1997
Preceded by Margaret Thatcher
Succeeded by William Hague
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
26 October 1989  28 November 1990
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Nigel Lawson
Succeeded by Norman Lamont
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
In office
24 July 1989  26 October 1989
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Sir Geoffrey Howe
Succeeded by Douglas Hurd
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
In office
13 June 1987  24 July 1989
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by John MacGregor
Succeeded by Norman Lamont
Minister of State for Social Security
In office
10 September 1986  13 June 1987
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Tony Newton
Succeeded by Nicholas Scott
Member of Parliament
for Huntingdon
Huntingdonshire (1979–83)
In office
3 May 1979  7 June 2001
Preceded by David Renton
Succeeded by Jonathan Djanogly
Personal details
Born John Roy Major
(1943-03-29) 29 March 1943
Carshalton, England, UK
Political party Conservative
Spouse(s) Norma Johnson (m. 1970)
  • Elizabeth
  • James
Religion Anglicanism

Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC (born 29 March 1943) is a British politician who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Leader of the Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997. He served as Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Thatcher Government from 1989 to 1990, and was the Member of Parliament (MP) for Huntingdon from 1979 to 2001. He is the oldest living former Prime Minister.

At the beginning of his premiership, Major presided over British participation in the Gulf War in March 1991 and negotiated the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991.[1] He went on to lead the Conservatives to a fourth consecutive election victory, winning the most votes in British electoral history with over 14 million in the 1992 general election, with a reduced majority in the House of Commons. Shortly after this, even though a staunch supporter of the ERM, the Major Government became responsible for British exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) after Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992. This event led to a loss of confidence in Conservative economic policies and Major was never able to achieve a lead in opinion polls again.

Despite the eventual revival of economic growth amongst other successes such as the beginnings of the Northern Ireland peace process, by the mid-1990s the Conservative Party was embroiled in sleaze scandals involving various MPs, including Cabinet Ministers. Criticism of Major's leadership reached such a pitch that he chose to resign as leader in June 1995, challenging his critics to either back him or challenge him; he was duly challenged by John Redwood but was easily re-elected. By this time, the Labour Party had moved further to the right under the leadership of Tony Blair and won a large number of by-elections, eventually depriving the Government of its majority in February 1997. Major went on to lose the 1997 general election months later, in one of the largest electoral defeats since the Great Reform Act of 1832.

After defeat, Major resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded as Leader of the Conservative Party by William Hague. He went on to retire from active politics, leaving the House of Commons at the 2001 general election.

Early life and education

Major was born in 1943 at St Helier Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, the son of Gwen Major, née Coates, and former music hall performer Tom Major-Ball who was 64 years old when John was born.[2] He was christened John Roy Major but only "John" was recorded on his birth certificate. He used his middle name until the early 1980s.[3] He attended primary school at Cheam Common and from 1954 he attended Rutlish Grammar School (now known as Rutlish School) in Merton. In 1955, with his father's garden ornaments business in decline, the family moved to Brixton. The following year, Major watched his first debate in the House of Commons, where Harold Macmillan presented his only Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and has attributed his political ambitions to that event. He also credited a chance meeting with former Prime Minister Clement Attlee on the King's Road shortly afterwards.[3][4]

Major left school at the age of 16 in 1959 with three O-levels in History, English Language and English Literature. He later gained three more O-levels by correspondence course, in the British Constitution, Mathematics and Economics.

Major's first job was as a clerk in the insurance brokerage firm Pratt & Sons in 1959. Disliking this job, he quit. Major joined the Young Conservatives in Brixton at this time.[5] Major was 19 years old when his father died at the age of 82 on 27 March 1962. His mother died eight and a half years later in September 1970 at the age of 65.[6][7]

After Major became Prime Minister it was misreported that his failure to get a job as a bus conductor resulted from his failing to pass a maths test. He had in fact passed all of the necessary tests but had been passed over owing to his height.[8][9]

After a period of unemployment, Major started working at the London Electricity Board in 1963 which is where incidentally his successor as Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also worked when he was young. He later decided to undertake a correspondence course in banking. Major took up a post as an executive at the Standard Chartered Bank in May 1965 and he rose quickly through the ranks. He was sent to work in Jos, Nigeria by the bank in 1967 and he nearly died in a car accident there.[10][11]

Early political career

Major was interested in politics from an early age. Encouraged by fellow Conservative Derek Stone, he started giving speeches on a soap-box in Brixton Market. He stood as a candidate for Lambeth London Borough Council at the age of 21 in 1964, and was elected in the Conservative landslide in 1968. While on the Council he was Chairman of the Housing Committee, being responsible for overseeing the building of several large council housing estates. He lost his seat in 1971.[12]

Major was an active Young Conservative, and according to his biographer Anthony Seldon brought "youthful exuberance" to the Tories in Brixton, but was often in trouble with the professional agent Marion Standing.[12] Also according to Seldon, the formative political influence on Major was Jean Kierans, a divorcée 13 years his elder, who became his political mentor and his lover, too. Seldon writes "She ... made Major smarten his appearance, groomed him politically, and made him more ambitious and worldly." Their relationship lasted from 1963 to sometime after 1968.

Major stood for election to Parliament in St Pancras North in both United Kingdom general elections in 1974, but was unsuccessful each time. In November 1976, Major was selected to be the candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Huntingdonshire. He won the seat in the 1979 general election.[12] Following boundary changes, Major became the MP for the newly formed seat of Huntingdon in 1983, and retained the seat in 1987, 1992 and 1997. He retired from Parliament in 2001.

He was appointed as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1981, becoming an assistant whip in 1983. He was later made Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in 1985, before being promoted to become Minister of State in the same department in 1986, first attracting national media attention over cold weather payments to the elderly in January 1987, when Britain was in the depths of a severe winter.[13][14]

In Cabinet

Following the 1987 election, Major was promoted to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Two years later, in a surprise July 1989 reshuffle, Major succeeded Geoffrey Howe as Foreign Secretary. The rapid promotion surprised many, due to Major's relative lack of experience in the Cabinet. Just three months later, in October 1989, Major was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer after the sudden resignation of Nigel Lawson. This meant that, despite only being in the Cabinet for little over two years, Major had gone from the most junior position in the Cabinet to holding two of the Great Offices of State.

As Chancellor, Major presented only one Budget, the first to be televised live, in early 1990. He publicised it as a budget for savings and announced the Tax-Exempt Special Savings Account (TESSA), arguing that measures were required to address the marked fall in the household savings ratio that had been apparent during the previous financial year. In June 1990, Major suggested that the proposed Single European Currency should be a "hard currency", competing against existing national currencies; this idea was not in the end adopted. In October 1990, Major and Douglas Hurd, Major's successor as Foreign Secretary, persuaded Thatcher to support British entry to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a move which she had resisted for many years, and which had played a part in the resignation of Nigel Lawson.[15]

After Michael Heseltine challenged Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party in November 1990, Major and Douglas Hurd were the proposer and seconder on her nomination papers for the leadership ballot. After Thatcher was unable to win enough support to prevent a second ballot, she announced her resignation as Prime Minister and Conservative Leader. Major subsequently announced on 22 November that he would stand in the second ballot. Major had been at home in Huntingdon recovering from a wisdom tooth operation during the first leadership ballot. Thatcher's nomination papers for the second ballot were sent to him by car for him to sign – it later emerged that he had signed both Thatcher's papers and a set of papers for his own candidacy in case she withdrew.

Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case 187 of 375 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine to secure immediate concessions from them. With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day.

Prime Minister

1992 election

The UK economy entered a recession during 1990, which deepened in 1991, with unemployment rising rapidly. The Conservatives had been consistently behind Labour in the opinion polls since 1989, and the gap had widened significantly during 1990. Within two months of Major becoming Prime Minister, Major was required to lead Britain through the first Gulf War, playing a key role in persuading US President George H. W. Bush to support no-fly zones. During this period, Major and his Cabinet survived an IRA assassination attempt by mortar attack. The Conservatives managed to regain a lead in the opinion polls after this period, with polls also showing Major as the most popular Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan in the early 1960s.[16]

In spite of Labour Leader Neil Kinnock's repeated calls for an immediate general election after Major became Prime Minister, it wasn't until February 1992 that Major called an election for 9 April. Major took his campaign onto the streets, delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as he had done in his days on Lambeth Council. This approach stood in contrast to the Labour Party's seemingly slicker campaign and it chimed with the electorate, along with hard-hitting negative campaign advertising focusing on the issue of Labour's approach to taxation. During the campaign, both parties were either tied or within one point of each other in opinion polls, leading to uncertainty over who would win – or whether there would be an outright election winner at all. On the night of the election, exit polls indicated a very slim Labour lead, which most observers predicted would translate into either a hung parliament or a small Labour majority, with Major's best hope of retaining power being with the Tories remaining in government as a minority government or as part of a coalition.[17]

Despite these predictions, the Conservatives won the election, gaining in excess of 14 million votes, the highest popular vote ever recorded by a British political party in a general election to date. Although this translated into a much-reduced majority of 21 seats in the House of Commons, this was enough for Major to return as Prime Minister elected in his own right and give the Conservatives their fourth consecutive victory, although the relatively small majority would go on to cause problems for Major throughout his second term.

John Major with President George H. W. Bush at Camp David in 1992

Black Wednesday

Main article: Black Wednesday

Major's second honeymoon as Prime Minister following his election victory did not last long. On 16 September 1992, the UK was forced to exit the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in difficult circumstances, in a day which would come to be known as "Black Wednesday", with billions of pounds wasted in a futile attempt to defend the value of sterling. The upheaval caused by the day's events was such that Major came close to resigning as Prime Minister, preparing an unsent letter of resignation addressed to the Queen.[18][19]

Although Major continued to defend Britain's membership of the ERM, stating that "the ERM was the medicine to cure the ailment, but it was not the ailment", the disaster of Black Wednesday left the Government's economic credibility irreparably damaged.[20] Major kept his economic team unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before eventually sacking Norman Lamont as Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing him with Kenneth Clarke. This came after months of press criticism of Lamont and a heavy defeat at a by-election in Newbury. His delay in sacking Lamont was exploited by Major's critics both inside and outside of his party, who used it to claim Major was too indecisive. Immediately after Black Wednesday, the Conservatives fell far behind Labour in the opinion polls and Major would never be able to regain the lead for the rest of his time as Prime Minister, being trounced in local council elections and the European parliament elections on the way, as well as suffering a string of by-election defeats which gradually wiped out the Conservative majority.[21]

Less than a year of his triumphant election victory, public opinion on Major personally plummeted, with Black Wednesday, mine closures, the Maastricht dispute and high unemployment being cited as four key areas of dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister. Newspapers which traditionally supported the Conservatives and had championed Major at the election were now being severely critical of him on an almost daily basis.[22] The UK's forced withdrawal from the ERM was succeeded by a partial economic recovery with a new policy of flexible exchange rates, allowing lower interest rates and devaluation, thereby increasing demand for UK goods in export markets. The recession that had started shortly before Major became Prime Minister was declared over in April 1993, when the economy grew by 0.2%. Unemployment also started to fall; it had stood at nearly 3 million by the end of 1992, but the spring of 1997 it had fallen to 1.7 million.[23][24]


On becoming Prime Minister, Major had promised to keep Britain "at the very heart of Europe", and claimed to have won "game, set and match for Britain" – by negotiating the Social Chapter and Single Currency opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty, and by ensuring that there was no overt mention of a "Federal" Europe and that foreign and defence policy were kept as matters of inter-governmental co-operation, in separate "pillars" from the supranational European Union. By 2010 some of these concessions, although not Britain's non-membership of the Single Currency, had been overtaken by subsequent events.

Even these moves towards greater European integration met with vehement opposition from the Eurosceptic wing of Major's party and his Cabinet, as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty in the first half of 1993. Although Labour supported the treaty, they tactically opposed certain provisions of the Treaty to exploit divisions in the Government. This opposition included passing an amendment that required a vote on the Social Chapter aspects of the Treaty before it could be ratified. On 22 July 1993, several Conservative MPs, known as the Maastricht Rebels, voted against the Treaty, and the Government was defeated. Major called another vote on the following day, which he declared as a vote of confidence. He won the vote but the damage had been done to his authority in Parliament.

Later that day, Major gave an interview to ITN's Michael Brunson. During an unguarded moment when Major thought that the microphones had been switched off, Brunson asked why he did not sack the ministers who were conspiring against him. He replied: "Just think it through from my perspective. You are the Prime Minister, with a majority of 18 ... where do you think most of the poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. Do we want three more of the bastards out there? What's Lyndon B. Johnson's maxim?"[25] Major later said that he had picked the number three from the air and that he was referring to "former ministers who had left the government and begun to create havoc with their anti-European activities",[26] but many journalists suggested that the three were Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, three of the more prominent "Eurosceptics" within his Cabinet.[27] Throughout the rest of Major's time as Prime Minister the exact identity of the three was blurred, with John Redwood's name frequently appearing in a list along with two of the others. The tape of this conversation was leaked to the Daily Mirror and widely reported, embarrassing Major.

By April 1993, a mere 12 months after his general election triumph, John Major's popularity as Prime Minister had slumped. As well as his party's dismal showings in the opinion polls, Major's own personal ratings in opinion polls were similarly low. He was now being reviled on an almost daily basis by newspapers whose support the Conservatives had once appeared to have taken for granted. Critics from all corners were also criticising his 'consensus' approach to politics, which contrasted sharply to the more confrontational approach of Margaret Thatcher – while others were keen to point out that a less confrontational approach to the job was something that many observers had been hoping for when Margaret Thatcher was leaving office in 1990. Comparisons were being drawn up with an earlier Conservative prime minister, Anthony Eden – who had risen through the ranks as a highly respected government minister before becoming prime minister, only to be seen as a disappointment after he did take over.

Arguments continued over Europe. Early in 1994 Major vetoed the Belgian politician Jean-Luc Dehaene to succeed Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission for being excessively federalist, only to find that he had to accept a Luxembourg politician of similar views, Jacques Santer, instead. Around this time Major – who in an unfortunate phrase denounced the Labour Leader John Smith as "Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels" – tried to demand an increase in the Qualified Majority needed for voting in the newly enlarged European Union (i.e. making it easier for Britain, in alliance with other countries, to block federalist measures). After Major had to back down on this issue Tony Marlow called openly in the House of Commons for his resignation. In 1996 European governments banned British beef over claims that it was infected with Mad Cow Disease – the British government withheld co-operation with the EU over the issue, but did not succeed in getting the ban lifted, only a timetable of lifting it. The conflict has been named the Beef war. By April 2013, vCJD – the human form of the disease had killed 280 people (176 of them in Britain).

For the rest of Major's premiership the main argument was over whether Britain would join the planned European Single Currency. Some leading Conservatives (e.g. Chancellor Ken Clarke) favoured joining and insisted that Britain retain a completely free choice, whilst increasing numbers of others expressed their reluctance to join. By this time billionaire Sir James Goldsmith had set up his own Referendum Party, siphoning off some Conservative support, and at the 1997 General Election many Conservative candidates were openly expressing reluctance to join.


Major with Lieutenant General Michael Walker at the Ilidza Compound in Sarajevo, Bosnia, during Operation Joint Endeavor

Major's premiership saw the ongoing war in Bosnia. Government policy was to maintain the United Nations arms embargo which restricted the flow of weapons into the region and to oppose air strikes against Bosnian Serbs. The Government's reasoning was that an arms embargo would only create a "level killing field" and that air strikes would endanger UN peacekeepers and the humanitarian aid effort. This policy was criticised by Thatcher and others who saw the Bosnian Muslims as the main victims of Serb aggression and compared the situation to events in the Second World War. The Clinton administration, by contrast, was committed to a policy of "lift and strike" (lifting the arms embargo and inflicting air strikes on the Serbs) causing tensions in the "special relationship" (Douglas Hurd and others strongly opposed this policy).

Some commentators compared the Major Government's policy to "amoral equivalency" because it appeared to judge the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Serbs equally culpable.[28] To some extent, these critics of Major's policy were later vindicated when, in an article published in 2011, the then-Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind accepted that the arms embargo was a "serious mistake" by the UN.[29]

Northern Ireland

Major opened talks with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) upon taking office. When he declared to the House of Commons in November 1993 that "to sit down and talk with Mr Adams and the Provisional IRA ... would turn my stomach",[30] Sinn Féin gave the media an outline of the secret talks indeed held regularly since that February. The Downing Street Declaration was issued on 15 December 1993 by Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach, with whom he had a friendly relationship: an IRA ceasefire followed in 1994. In the House of Commons, Major refused to sign up to the first draft of the "Mitchell Principles", which resulted in the ending of the ceasefire. Major paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the 'Belfast Agreement', which was signed after he left office.

In March 1995, Major refused to answer the phone calls of United States President Bill Clinton for several days because of his anger at Clinton's decision to invite Gerry Adams to the White House for St Patrick's Day.[31]


Graph showing rail modal share (rail's share of total travel), from 1952 to 2014[32]

From 1994 to 1997, Major privatised British rail, splitting it up into franchises to be run by the private sector. The process was controversial at the time, and its success is hotly debated, with a large increase in passenger numbers and investment in the network balanced by worries about the level of rail subsidy.


At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major began the "Back to Basics" campaign, which he intended to also be about a wide variety of issues including the economy, education and policing, but which was interpreted by many (including Conservative cabinet ministers) purely in the context of returning to the moral and family values that they associated with the Conservative Party.[33]

Instead of being well received, "Back to Basics" instead became synonymous with scandal, often exposed in lurid and embarrassing detail by tabloid newspapers such as The Sun. In 1992, David Mellor, a cabinet minister, had been exposed as having an extramarital affair and for accepting hospitality from the daughter of a leading member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.[34] The wife of Lord Caithness committed suicide amongst rumours of the peer committing adultery.[35] Stephen Milligan was found dead having apparently auto-asphyxiated whilst performing a solitary sex act (his Eastleigh seat was lost in what was to be an ongoing stream of hefty by-election defeats).[36] David Ashby was "outed" by his wife after sleeping with men.[35] A string of other Conservative MPs, including Alan Amos, Tim Yeo, and Michael Brown, were involved in sexual scandals.[37]

Other debilitating scandals included "Arms to Iraq" – the ongoing inquiry into how government ministers including Alan Clark (also involved in an unrelated scandal involving the revelation of his affair with the wife and both daughters of a South African judge) had encouraged businesses to supply arms to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, in breach of the official arms embargo, and how senior ministers had, on legal advice, attempted to withhold evidence of this official connivance when directors of Matrix Churchill were put on trial for breaking the embargo.[38]

Another scandal was "Cash for Questions", in which first Graham Riddick, and David Tredinnick accepted money to ask questions in the House of Commons in a newspaper "sting", and later Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were found to have received money from Mohamed Al-Fayed, also to ask questions in the House. Later, David Willetts resigned as Paymaster General after he was accused of rigging evidence to do with Cash for Questions.[39]

Defence Minister Jonathan Aitken was accused by the ITV investigative journalism series World in Action and The Guardian newspaper of secretly doing deals with leading Saudi princes. He denied all accusations and promised to wield the "sword of truth" in libel proceedings which he brought against The Guardian and the producers of World in Action Granada Television. At an early stage in the trial, it became apparent that he had lied under oath, and he was subsequently (after the Major government had fallen from power) convicted of perjury and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.[40]

Major attempted to draw some of the sting from the financial scandals by setting up public inquiries – the Nolan Report into standards expected in public life, and the Scott Report into the Arms to Iraq Scandal.[41]

Although Tim Smith stepped down from the House of Commons at the 1997 General Election, both Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken sought re-election for their seats, and were both defeated, in Hamilton's case by the former BBC Reporter Martin Bell, who stood as an anti-sleaze candidate, both the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates withdrawing in his favour, amidst further publicity unfavourable to the Conservatives.[42]

Major later commented in his memoirs on the "routine" with which he would be telephoned over the weekend to be warned of the latest embarrassing story due to break. He wrote that he took a stern line against financial impropriety, but was angered at the way in which a host of scandals, many of them petty sexual misdemeanours by a small number of MPs, were exploited by the press and Opposition for political advantage. He also conceded that the issue "fed the public belief that the Conservative(s) ... had been in government too long, and had got into bad habits" and quoted Labour's claim in 1997: "Nothing better encapsulates what people think of this government. Sleaze will be one of the things which brings this government down."[43]

Leadership crisis

On 22 June 1995, tired of continual threats of leadership challenges that never arose, Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and announced he would contest the resulting leadership election – he continued to serve as Prime Minister while the leadership was vacant, but would have resigned had he not been re-elected by a large enough majority. John Redwood resigned as Secretary of State for Wales to stand against him. Major won by 218 votes to Redwood's 89, with 12 spoiled ballots, eight 'active' abstentions and two MPs abstaining, enough to easily win in the first round. The amount was three more than the target he had privately set himself, having earlier resolved to resign if he could not carry the support at least 215 of his MPs.[44]

The Sun newspaper, still at this stage supporting the Conservative Party, had lost faith in Major and declared its support for Redwood in the leadership election, running the front page headline "Redwood versus Deadwood".[45]

1997 election and resignation

Major's comfortable re-election as Conservative Leader failed to restore his authority. Despite efforts to improve the popularity of the Conservative Party, Labour remained far ahead in the opinion polls as the election loomed, despite the economic boom that had followed the exit from recession four years earlier, and the swift fall in unemployment. By February 1997, by-election losses and defections meant that the Conservatives had lost their majority in the House of Commons. Major managed to survive to the end of the Parliament, leading what had effectively become a minority government, and called an election on 17 March 1997 as the five-year limit for its timing approached. Major had deliberately delayed the election until close to the last possible moment in the hope that a still-improving economy would help the Conservatives hold a greater number of seats, and that voters would be deterred from Labour by exposing the party's policies with slogans like "New Labour, New Danger".

Unfortunately for John Major, his attempts to win public support and swing the election in favour of the Tories did not work. Even The Sun newspaper, which had championed the Conservatives five years earlier and claimed to have won the 1992 general election for the party, declared its support for Tony Blair's "New Labour", condemning the Tories as "tired, divided and rudderless".

On 1 May 1997, the Conservative Party suffered the worst electoral defeat by a ruling party since the Reform Act 1832. In the new Parliament, Labour held 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, giving Labour a majority of 179; it was the lowest number of Conservative seats in Parliament for over a century, and the new political landscape appeared likely to guarantee Labour at least two successive parliamentary terms in government. Major himself was re-elected in his own constituency of Huntingdon with an increased majority of 18,140, but 179 other Conservative MPs were defeated, including present and former Cabinet Ministers such as Norman Lamont, Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo. The huge election defeat also left the Conservatives without any MPs in Scotland or Wales for the first time in history. The party would not return to government until 2010, and did not win a parliamentary majority until 2015.

The following day Major travelled to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen of his resignation as Prime Minister. Shortly before this he had announced his intention to also resign as Conservative Leader, giving his final statement outside 10 Downing Street in which he said; "When the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage—and that is what I propose to do."[46] Major then famously announced to the press that he intended to go with his family to The Oval to watch Surrey play cricket.[47]

Final years in Parliament (until 2001)

Although many Conservative MPs wanted Major to resign as leader immediately, there was a movement among the grassroots of the party, encouraged by his political allies, to have him stay on as leader until the autumn. Lord Cranborne, his Chief of Staff during the election, and the Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad, both pleaded with him to stay on. They argued that remaining as leader for a few months would give the party time to come to terms with the scale of defeat before electing a successor.[48] Major refused, saying: "It would be terrible, because I would be presiding with no authority over a number of candidates fighting for the crown. It would merely prolong the agony."[47]

Major served as Leader of the Opposition for seven weeks whilst the leadership election to replace him was underway. He formed a temporary Shadow Cabinet, but with seven of his Cabinet Ministers having lost their seats at the election, and with few senior MPs left to replace them, several MPs had to hold multiple briefs.[47] Major himself served as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and the office of Shadow Scotland Secretary was left vacant until after the 2001 general election as the party had no MPs from Scotland.[47] Major's resignation as Conservative Leader formally took effect on 19 June 1997 after the election of William Hague. His Resignation Honours were announced in August 1997.

Major remained active in Parliament after his resignation, regularly attending and contributing in debates. He stood down from the House of Commons at the 2001 general election, having announced his retirement live on BBC One's breakfast television show with David Frost in October 2000.[49]


Major's mild-mannered style and moderate political stance made him theoretically well-placed to act as a conciliatory leader of his party. In spite of this, conflict raged within the Parliamentary Conservative Party, particularly over the extent of Britain's integration with the European Union. Major never succeeded in reconciling the "Euro-rebels" among his MPs to his European policy, who although relatively few in number – in spite of the fact that their views were much more widely supported amongst Conservative activists and voters – wielded great influence because of his small majority, and episodes such as the Maastricht Rebellion inflicted serious political damage on him and his government. The additional bitterness on the right wing of the Conservative Party at the manner in which Margaret Thatcher had been removed from office did not make Major's task any easier. A series of scandals among leading Conservative MPs also did Major and his government no favours. His task became even more difficult after the well-received election of Tony Blair as Labour Leader in July 1994.[50]

Major defended his government in his memoirs, focusing particularly on how under him the British economy had recovered from the recession of 1990–92. He wrote that, "During my premiership interest rates fell from 14% to 6%; unemployment was at 1.75 million when I took office, and at 1.6 million and falling upon my departure; and the government's annual borrowing rose from £0.5 billion to nearly £46 billion at its peak before falling to £1 billion".[51]

The former Labour MP Tony Banks said of Major in 1994 that, "He was a fairly competent Chairman of Housing on Lambeth Council. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking, 'What on earth is Councillor Major doing?' I can't believe he's here and sometimes I think he can't either."[52] Paddy Ashdown, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats during Major's term of office, once described him in the House of Commons as a "decent and honourable man". Few observers doubted that he was an honest man, or that he made sincere and sometimes successful attempts to improve life in Britain and to unite his deeply divided party. He was also perceived as a weak and ineffectual figure, and his approval ratings for most of his time in office were low, particularly after "Black Wednesday" in September 1992.[53] Conversely on occasions he attracted criticism for pursuing schemes favoured by the right of his party, notably the privatisation of British Rail.[54]

Later life

a smiling, clean-shaven middle-aged white man with grey hair, wearing sunglasses
Major enjoying his retirement at a cricket match

Since leaving office Major has maintained a low profile, indulging his love of cricket as president of Surrey County Cricket Club until 2002 (and Honorary Life Vice-President since 2002)[55] and commentating on political developments in the manner of an elder statesman.[56] He has been a member of the Carlyle Group's European Advisory Board since 1998 and was appointed Chairman of Carlyle Europe in May 2001.[57] He stood down in August 2004.

Like many post-war former prime ministers, Major turned down a peerage[58] when he retired from the House of Commons in 2001.

In March 2001, he gave the tribute to Colin Cowdrey (Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge) at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey.[59] In 2005 he was elected to the Committee of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), historically the governing body of the sport, and still guardian of the laws of the game.[60] Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, Major was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry,[61] with responsibility for legal and administrative matters.

A portrait of Major, painted in 1996 by June Mendoza, is part of the parliamentary collection,[62] as is a bronze bust by Anne Curry.[63]

Major is the author of three best-selling books – John Major The Autobiography; More than a Game, a history of cricket; and My Old Man, a history of Music Hall.

Revelation of affair

Major's low profile following his exit from parliament was disrupted by Edwina Currie's revelation in September 2002 that, prior to his promotion to the Cabinet, he had had a four-year extramarital affair with her.[64][65] Commentators were quick to refer to Major's previous "Back to Basics" platform to throw charges of hypocrisy, and an obituary of Tony Newton in The Daily Telegraph claimed that if Newton had not kept the affair a closely guarded secret "it is highly unlikely that Major would have become prime minister".[66]

In 1993, Major had also sued two magazines, New Statesman and Society and Scallywag, as well as their distributors, for reporting rumours of an affair with a caterer, even though at least one of the magazines had said that the rumours were false. Both considered legal action to recover their costs when the affair with Currie was revealed.[67]

In a press statement, Major said that he was "ashamed" by the affair and that his wife had forgiven him. In response, Currie said "he wasn't ashamed of it at the time and he wanted it to continue."[68]

Since 2005

Major in 2007

In February 2005, it was reported that Major and Norman Lamont delayed the release of papers on Black Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act.[69] Major denied doing so, saying that he had not heard of the request until the scheduled release date and had merely asked to look at the papers himself. He told BBC News that he and Lamont had been the victims of "whispering voices" to the press.[70] He later publicly approved the release of the papers.[71]

Major has become an active after-dinner speaker. He earns over £25,000 per engagement for his "insights and his own opinions on the expanding European Union, the future of the world in the 21st century, and also about Britain", according to his agency.[72]

In December 2006, Major led calls for an independent inquiry into Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq, following revelations made by Carne Ross, a former British senior diplomat, that contradict Blair's case for the invasion.[73] He was touted as a possible Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London elections in 2008, but turned down an offer from Conservative leader David Cameron. A spokesperson for Major said "his political career is behind him".[74]

In 2010, Major became a key loyalist to the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, and said that he hoped for a "liberal conservative" alliance beyond 2015, and has criticised Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, for "party games" rather than helping in the national interest.[75]

In February 2012, Major became chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.[76] The trust was formed as part of the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, and is intended to support charitable organisations and projects across the Commonwealth of Nations, focusing on areas such as cures for diseases and the promotion of culture and education.[76] Later on in 2012, John Major became President of influential centre-right think tank the Bow Group.[77]

He is currently a president of the Chatham House think tank.[78]

Representation in the media

During his leadership of the Conservative Party, Major was portrayed as honest ("Honest John") but unable to rein in the philandering and bickering within his party. Major's appearance was noted in its greyness, his prodigious philtrum, and large glasses, all of which were exaggerated in caricatures. For example, in Spitting Image, Major's puppet was changed from a circus performer to that of a grey man who ate dinner with his wife in silence, occasionally saying "nice peas, dear", whilst at the same time nursing an unrequited crush on his colleague Virginia Bottomley – an invention, but an ironic one in view of his affair with Edwina Currie, which was not then a matter of public knowledge. By the end of his premiership his puppet would often be shown observing the latest fiasco and ineffectually murmuring "oh dear".

The media (particularly The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell) used the allegation by Alastair Campbell that he had observed Major tucking his shirt into his underpants to caricature him wearing his pants outside his trousers,[79] as a pale grey echo of both Superman and Supermac, a parody of Harold Macmillan. Bell also used the humorous possibilities of the Cones Hotline, a means for the public to inform the authorities of potentially unnecessary traffic cones, which was part of the Citizen's Charter project established by John Major.

Private Eye parodied Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13¾ to write The Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾, in which Major was portrayed as a naive nincompoop (e.g. keeping lists of his enemies in a Rymans Notebook called his "Bastards Book") and featuring "my wife Norman" and "Mr Dr Mawhinney" as recurring characters. The magazine still runs one-off specials of this diary (with the age updated) on occasions when Major is in the news, such as on the breaking of the Edwina Currie story or the publication of his autobiography. The magazine also ran a series of cartoons called 101 Uses for a John Major (based on a comic book of some ten years earlier, called 101 Uses for a Dead Cat), in which Major was illustrated serving a number of bizarre purposes, such as a train-spotter's anorak.

Major's Brixton roots were used in a campaign poster during the Conservative Party's 1992 election campaign: "What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister."[80]

Major was often mocked for his nostalgic evocation of what sounded like the lost Britain of the 1950s (see Merry England).[81] For example: "Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers".[82] Major complained in his memoirs that these words (which drew upon a passage in the sociopolitical commentator and author George Orwell's "The Lion and the Unicorn")[83] had been misrepresented as being more naive and romantic than he had intended, and indeed his memoirs were dismissive of the common conservative viewpoint that there was once a time of moral rectitude; Major wrote that "life has never been as simple as that".

Writing in 2011, the BBC's Home editor Mark Easton judged that "Majorism" had made little lasting impact.[84] Peter Oborne, writing in 2012, asserts that Major's government looks ever more successful as time goes by.[85] Major was also one of the prime ministers portrayed in the 2013 stage play The Audience, played by Paul Ritter.

Titles and honours

Styles of address

John Major in the robes of a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter


In the 1999 New Year Honours List, Major was made a Companion of Honour for his work on the Northern Ireland peace process.[86] In a 2003 interview, he spoke about his hopes for peace in the region.[87]

On 23 April 2005, Major was bestowed with a knighthood as a Companion of the Order of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth II. He was installed at St George's Chapel, Windsor on 13 June. Membership of the Order of the Garter is limited in number to 24, and as a personal gift of the Queen is an honour traditionally bestowed on former Prime Ministers.[88] Major had previously declined a life peerage on standing down from Parliament.[89]

On 20 June 2008, Major was granted the Freedom of the City of Cork.[90]

On 26 April 2010, Major gave a speech in the Cambridge Union, after which he was granted honorary membership of the society.[91]

On 8 May 2012, Major was personally decorated at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo by the Emperor of Japan with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his invaluable contributions to Japan–UK relations through his work in the political and economic arena, and also in promoting mutual understanding. While Prime Minister, Major had pursued energetic campaigns aimed at boosting bilateral trade – "Priority Japan" (1991–94) and "Action Japan" (1994–97). The 1991 Japan Festival also took place under his Premiership.[92]


Personal life

Major married Norma Johnson (now Dame Norma Major DBE) on 3 October 1970 at St Matthew's Church, Brixton.[94] She was a teacher and a member of the Young Conservatives. They met on polling day for the Greater London Council elections in London, and became engaged after only ten days.[95] They had two children; a son, James, and a daughter, Elizabeth. They have a holiday home on the coast of north Norfolk, near Weybourne, which has round-the-clock police surveillance.[96]

Major's elder brother, Terry, who died in 2007, became a minor media personality during Major's period in Downing Street, with a 1994 autobiography, Major Major. He also wrote newspaper columns, and appeared on TV shows such as Have I Got News for You. He faced criticism about his brother but always remained loyal.

His daughter Elizabeth married Luke Salter on 26 March 2000,[97] having been in a relationship since 1988.[98] Salter died on 22 November 2002 from cancer.[99]

His son James, a former nightclub promoter and flooring contractor, married gameshow hostess Emma Noble and together they had a son, Harrison. Following their divorce, James married Kate Postlethwaite (née Dorrell), the mother of his second son, on 31 March 2012.

Major is the Patron of British Gymnastics as well as an enthusiastic follower of cricket, motor racing, and also a supporter of Chelsea F.C.[100]



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