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John Major


Sir John Major KG CH ACIB (born 29 March 1943), is a British politician who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the British Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997. During his time as Prime Minister, the world went through a period of transition after the end of the Cold War. This included the growing importance of the European Union and the debate surrounding Britain's ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. As Prime Minister, Major and his government were also responsible for the United Kingdom's exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) after Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992.

In 1997 the Conservative Party, under Major's leadership, lost the general election to Tony Blair's Labour Party. This was one of the worst electoral defeats in British politics since the Great Reform Act of 1832. After the defeat he was replaced as leader of the party by William Hague, continuing as an MP until he retired from the House of Commons in the 2001 general election.

Before serving as Prime Minister, Major was a Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher. He served as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, making him one of the few people to have served in three of the four Great Offices of State.

Early life

John Major was born on 29 March 1943, the son of Tom Pascal Hubert Major-Ball, a former music-hall artiste. He was christened John Roy Major but only the name John is shown on his birth certificate. He used the middle name Roy until the early 1980s.

He was born at the St Helier Hospital, Carshalton. He attended primary school at Cheam Common, and then attended Rutlish Grammar School, since converted to a comprehensive school and renamed Rutlish School, in Merton, from 1954 onwards, when he passed the eleven-plus. There he had an undistinguished education. In the 1950s, his father's garden ornaments business failed, and the family were forced to move to Brixton in 1955. He watched his first debate in the House of Commons in 1956, and attributes his political ambitions to that event.

Major left school at sixteen in 1959, with three O-levels: History, English Language, and English Literature. He would later gain three more by correspondence course in British Constitution, Mathematics and Economics. Indeed, shortly after becoming PM, when pressed about his precise qualifications Major answered "he couldn't remember" what he had attained. Major applied to become a bus conductor after leaving school but was beaten to the post by another applicant. Many accounts have said this was due to his height, although early media reports claimed wrongly that this was due to poor arithmetic. His first job was as a clerk in an insurance brokerage firm 'Pratt & Sons' in 1959 after leaving school. Disliking this, he quit and for a time, he helped with his father's garden ornaments business with his brother, Terry Major-Ball. He also joined the Young Conservatives in Brixton at this time.

After a spell of unemployment, he started working at the London Electricity Board (where his successor as PM Tony Blair also worked when young) in 1963, and decided to undertake a correspondence course in banking. Major took up a post as an executive at Standard Chartered Bank in May 1965 and rose quickly through the ranks; he was sent to Nigeria by the bank in 1967, and nearly died after a car crash there.

He is an Associate of the Institute of Bankers.

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 Borough Council at the age of 21 in 1964, and was unexpectedly elected in the Conservative landslide in 1968. While on the council he served as Chairman of the Housing Committee, being responsible for the building of several council housing estates. Despite moving to a ward which was easier for the Conservatives to win, he lost his seat in May 1971.

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. But, again according to Seldon, the formative political influence on Major was Jean Kierans, a divorcée 13 years his elder who became his political mentor and lover. 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.

He stood for election to Parliament in St Pancras North in both general elections of 1974, but did not win this traditionally Labour seat. In November 1976, he was selected by Huntingdonshire Conservatives as their candidate at the next election, winning the safe seat in the 1979 general election. Following boundary changes, Major became Member of Parliament (MP) for Huntingdon in 1983 and subsequently won the seat in the 1987, 1992 and 1997 elections (his political agent in all three elections was Peter Brown). His majority in 1992 was an extraordinary 36,230 votes, the highest ever recorded. He stood down at the 2001 general election.

He was a Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1981 and an assistant whip from 1983. He was made Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in 1985 and became minister of the same department in 1986. He entered the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987, and in a surprise re-shuffle on 24 July 1989, a relatively inexperienced John Major was appointed Foreign Secretary, succeeding Geoffrey Howe. He spent only three months in that post before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer after Nigel Lawson's resignation in October 1989. Major presented only one budget (the first one to be televised) in the spring of 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.

When Michael Heseltine's challenge to Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the Conservative Party forced the contest to a second round and Thatcher withdrew, Major entered the contest alongside Douglas Hurd. Though he fell two votes short of the required winning margin of 187 in the second ballot Major's result was sufficient to secure immediate concessions from his rivals and he became Leader of the Conservative Party on 27 November 1990. The next day, Major was summoned to Buckingham Palace and appointed Prime Minister.

Prime minister

The Gulf War

Major served as Prime Minister during the first Gulf War of 1991, and played a key role in persuading American president George H. W. Bush to support no-fly zones.

Soap Box election

The economy slid into recession again during Major's first year in office, though the signs of this were appearing during Thatcher's final months as Prime Minister, and Major's Conservatives were widely expected to lose the 1992 election to Neil Kinnock's Labour Party. Major took his campaign onto the streets, famously delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as in his Lambeth days. This "common touch" 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. Major won a second period in office, albeit with the small parliamentary majority of just 21 seats. Despite this Major won over 14 million votes, the highest popular vote recorded by a British PM.

Black Wednesday

This slim majority proved to be unmanageable however, particularly after the United Kingdom's exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992) - just five months into the new parliament - when billions of pounds were wasted in a futile attempt to prop up the currency's value.

After the release of Black Wednesday government documents, it became apparent that Major came very close to stepping down from office at this point, having even prepared an unsent letter of resignation addressed to the Queen.

Major kept his economic team unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before requiring the resignation of Chancellor Norman Lamont, whom he replaced with Kenneth Clarke. Such a delay, on top of the crisis, was portrayed by Major's critics as proof of the indecisiveness that was to undermine his authority through the rest of his premiership. But, ironically, in appointing Clarke as Chancellor, Major made what was arguably the single most important appointment of his tenure.

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, along with the unintended consequence of a devalued pound - increased sales of UK goods to export markets.

Infighting over Europe - "the bastards"

Rather than capitalise on the economic 'good news', however, the Conservative Party soon fell into political infighting over the subject of Europe: On Europe, Major took a moderate approach but he found himself undermined by the Eurosceptic wing of the party and the Cabinet. In particular, his policy towards the European Union aroused opposition as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Although the Labour opposition supported the treaty, they were prepared to tactically oppose certain provisions in order to weaken 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. Several Conservative MPs voted against the Major Government and the vote was lost. Major hit back by calling another vote on the following day (23 July 1993), which he declared a vote of confidence. He won by forty votes, 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 he 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 eighteen... 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?" 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", but many journalists immediately suggested that the three were Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, who were three of the more prominent "Eurosceptics" within his Cabinet at the time. Throughout the rest of Major's premiership the exact identity of the three would be 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. (The maxim referred to is Johnson's famous comment about J. Edgar Hoover: Johnson had once sought a way to remove Hoover from his post as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but upon realising that the problems involved in such a plan were insurmountable, he accepted Hoover's presence philosophically, reasoning that it would be "better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in").


At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major began the "Back to Basics" campaign, which he intended to be about the economy, education, policing, and other such issues. However, it was interpreted by many (including Conservative cabinet ministers) as an attempt to revert to the moral and family values that the Conservative Party were often associated with. "Back to Basics", however, became synonymous with scandal -- often exposed by Tabloid newspapers such as The Sun. David Mellor, a cabinet minister was exposed as having an extramarital affair. The wife of the Earl of Caithness committed suicide amongst rumours of the Earl committing adultery. David Ashby was 'outed' by his wife after sleeping with men. A string of other conservative MPs including Alan Amos, Tim Yeo and Michael Brown all were involved in sexual scandals. There was also the spectacularly bizarre autoerotic death of Stephen Milligan.

Other debilitating scandals included "Cash for Questions", in which it was revealed that several Conservative MPs had been given money by Mohamed Al Fayed to ask questions in the House of Commons. Graham Riddick, David Tredinnick, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were all exposed in the scandal. Later, David Willetts resigned as Paymaster General after he was accused of rigging evidence to do with Cash for Questions.

Defence Minister Jonathan Aitken (whose Parliamentary Aide was Stephen Milligan) was accused 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 newspaper. At an early stage in the trial however, it became apparent that he had lied on oath with the result that he was subsequently convicted of perjury and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Northern Ireland

John Major opened talks with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) upon taking office. Yet 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", 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 prime minister; 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.

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

However, Major paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement, although it was signed after he left office.

Leadership challenge

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 be contesting the resulting leadership election. John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales stood against him. Major won by 218 votes to Redwood's 89 (with 12 spoiled ballots, eight abstentions and two MPs abstaining) – easily enough to win in the first round, but only three more than the target he had privately set himself. (The Conservative Party has since changed its rules to allow a simple vote of no confidence in the leader, rather than requiring a challenger to stand; this mechanism was used to remove Iain Duncan Smith from the leadership in later years).

1997 general election defeat

His re-election as leader of the party however failed to restore his authority. Despite efforts to restore (or at least improve) the popularity of the Conservative party, Labour remained far ahead in the opinion polls as the 1997 election loomed. By December 1996, the Conservatives had actually lost their majority in the House of Commons. Major managed to survive to the end of the Parliament, but called an election on 17 March 1997 as the five-year limit for its timing approached. Major delayed the election in the hope that a still improving economy would help the Conservatives win a greater number of seats, but it did not.

Few then were surprised when Major's Conservatives lost the 1997 general election to Tony Blair's "New Labour", though the immense scale of the defeat was not widely predicted: the Conservative party suffered the worst electoral defeat since the Great Reform Act of 1832. In the new parliament, Labour held 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, giving the Labour party a majority of 179.

John Major himself was re-elected in his constituency of Huntingdon with a majority of 18,140. However, 179 other Conservative MPs were defeated in 1997, including present and former Cabinet ministers such as Norman Lamont, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and, most importantly, Michael Portillo.

At about noon on 2 May 1997, Major officially returned his seals of office as Prime Minister to Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly before his resignation, he gave his final statement from Number Ten, in which he said "when the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage". Major then famously told the press that he intended to go with his family to The Oval to watch cricket.

Following his resignation as Prime Minister, Major briefly became Leader of the Opposition and remained in this post until the election of William Hague as leader of the Conservative Party in June 1997. His Resignation Honours were announced in August 1997.

Major continued as an MP until he retired from the House of Commons in the 2001 general election, a fact he announced on the Breakfast show with David Frost.

Summary of Major's premiership

John Major's mild-mannered style and moderate political stance made him potentially well-placed to act as a conciliatory leader of his party. Conflict raged within the Conservative Party during his leadership, however, especially over the question of how far Britain should become integrated with the European Union. Major never succeeded in reconciling the relatively small group of "Euro-rebels" among his MPs to his European policy, and episodes such as the Maastricht Rebellion inflicted serious political damage on him and his government. During the 1990s, there was also bitterness on the right wing of the Conservative Party at the manner in which Lady Thatcher had been removed from office; this did not make Major's task any easier.

On the other hand, it was during Major's premiership that the British economy recovered from the recession of 1990-1992. Conservatives subsequently spoke of Tony Blair's government inheriting a "golden legacy" in 1997, and both parties from 1992 onwards presided over the longest period of economic growth in British history.

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, however, 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. Conversely on occasions he attracted criticism for dogmatically pursuing complex and unworkable schemes favoured by the right of his party, notably the privatisation of British Rail, and for closing down most of the Coal industry.

The late 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.


Since leaving office Major has tended to take a low profile retirement, indulging his love of cricket as president of Surrey County Cricket Club. He held the position until 2002. He has been a member of Carlyle Group's European Advisory Board since 1998 and was appointed Chairman of Carlyle Europe in May 2001. He stood down in August 2004.

In March 2001, he gave the tribute to (Lord) Colin Cowdrey at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey. 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.

Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, Major was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry, with responsibility for legal and administrative matters.

Major/Currie affair

Major's post retirement low-profile was disrupted by the revelation by Edwina Currie in September 2002 that, prior to his promotion to the Cabinet, Major had had a four-year extramarital affair with her. Commentators were quick to refer to Major's previous "Back to Basics" platform to throw charges of hypocrisy. In a press statement Major said that he was "embarrassed" about the affair and that his wife had forgiven him.

Since 2005

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. 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. The former prime minister told BBC News he and former chancellor Norman Lamont had been the victims of "whispering voices" to the press. He later publicly approved the release of the papers.

According to the Evening Standard, Major has become a prolific after-dinner speaker. The Independent states that he earns over £25,000 per engagement, and is described by his agency as providing "insights and his own opinions on the expanding European Union, the future of the world in the 21st century, and also about Britain".

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. 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 future is behind him".

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". 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, as a pale grey echo of both Superman and Supermac, a parody of Harold Macmillan.

Private Eye parodied Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13¾ to write The Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾, 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 Sir John 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, in which Major was illustrated serving a number of bizarre purposes, such as a train-spotter's anorak.

John 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.

Major was often mocked for his nostalgic evocation of what sounded like the lost England of the 1950s. He is known to have once said:

Major complained in his memoirs that these words (which drew upon a passage in the socialist writer George Orwell's "The Lion and the Unicorn") had been misrepresented as being more naive and romantic than he had intended.

Titles and honours

Styles from birth

  • John Major, (1943 – 1979)
  • John Major, Esq, MP (1979 – 1987)
  • The Rt Hon John Major, MP, PC (1987 – 1999)
  • The Rt Hon John Major, CH, MP, PC (1999 – 2001)
  • The Rt Hon John Major, CH, PC (2001 – 2005)
  • The Rt Hon Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC (2005 – )


In the New Year's Honours List of 1999, John Major was made a Companion of Honour for his work on the Northern Ireland Peace Process. In a 2003 interview he spoke about his hopes for peace in the region.

On 23 April 2005, Major was made a Knight 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 is an honour traditionally bestowed on former British Prime Ministers and a personal gift of Her Majesty the Queen.

Major has so far declined the customary life peerage awarded to former Prime Ministers on standing down from Parliament.

On 20 June 2008, John Major was granted the Freedom of the City of Cork.

Personal life

Major married Norma Johnson (now Dame Norma Major, DBE) on 3 October 1970. She was a teacher and a member of the Young Conservatives. They met on polling day for the Greater London Council elections in London. They became engaged after only ten days. They had two children; a son, James, and a daughter, Elizabeth. They have a holiday home on the coast of North Norfolk, near Weybourne, that requires round-the-clock police surveillance.

Major's elder brother, Terry, who died in 2007, became a minor media personality during Major's period in Downing Street, writing an autobiography and newspaper columns, and appearing on TV shows such as Have I Got News For You. He faced brickbats about his brother but always remained loyal.

His son James married and divorced model Emma Noble. Previously she modelled prizes with Bruce Forsyth on The Price is Right game show.


Further reading

  • Major, John (1999) – Autobiography (London: Harper Collins, ISBN 0-00-257004-1)
  • Major, John (2007) – More Than A Game: The Story of Cricket's Early Years (London: Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-718364-7)

External links

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