Historical Reflections: The Major Era

By Researcher Hugh Dollery 

Background – The Poster Boy of Social Mobility 

The grey spray-painted Spitting Image puppet of John Major largely captures how the UK electorate remember the grammar school boy from Brixton turned Prime Minister. Dull, grey and lacking charisma.

Nevertheless, history must look back at Major with kindness, and measure his governance from his actions and achievement, not his character. Any Conservative leader filling the shoes of the 'Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher was going to have a difficult time, especially as the European Community attempted to establish deeper economic and political integration. 

John Major must be praised for the efforts he made in initiating the road to peace in Northern Ireland after more than twenty years of ‘The Troubles’. Also, Major must gain credit for his performance in the 1992 General Election, keeping the Conservatives in power for another five years. Nevertheless, he cannot escape criticism for the damage that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism caused to the Conservatives’ reputation as the fiscally responsible party of government.

However, empirically, Major’s government’s economic policy was relatively effective during his time in office. The recession of 1990 had ended by April 1993 and by spring 1997, unemployment had dropped significantly from the numbers of 1992. The deficit was under control and growth was steady when New Labour took office in May 1997.

Where Major faced the most issues was over Europe and the Maastricht Treaty. On the one hand, Major can be praised for obtaining the four key opt-outs, most importantly the exemption from the single currency, enabling the UK to avoid the crises of the Eurozone. However, Eurosceptics view the ratification of Maastricht as changing the UK’s relationship with the European Community from one of mainly trade to ever-closer political union in a very explicit way. 

After Major it would be thirteen years before the UK had another Conservative Prime Minister. It is interesting to take notice that David Cameron and the Tory modernisers saw their only way back to power through the adoption of the characteristics of New Labour, mesmerised by Blair’s electoral successes, leaving Major’s style of governance to the wayside.

Taking the Reins from Thatcher: Battle for the Conservative Leadership

After years of dissatisfaction and concern, the capacity for Margaret Thatcher to continue as Conservative leader was put into question. This sense of unease was heightened after she had to defend her authority against the stalking horse candidate of Sir Anthony Meyer in December 1989, and also by the Conservatives' suffering a backlash from the poll tax. This was exacerbated by the uncertainty caused by the resignation of key figures from her cabinet, starting with Chancellor Nigel Lawson in October 1989 to Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe in November 1990.

On 27 November 1990, Major won the leadership of the Conservative party through his strategic co-operation with Thatcher's Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. Their partnership caused Michael Heseltine, the anti-Thatcherite candidate, to drop out of the contest after Major achieved 49.7% of the vote in the second ballot; Heseltine realised that Hurd's 56 votes would fall to Major in the next round to ensure that Heseltine was denied the leadership.

In the aftermath of the election, John Major formed his administration- returning Hurd to the position of Foreign Secretary and inviting Heseltine to take the position of Environmental Secretary. With the change in leadership, the Conservatives approval ratings were revived in the polls.

The Surprise Fourth Conservative General Election Victory: 1992 

Labour's leader Neil Kinnock continued to pressure the new Conservative Prime Minister to call an early election. Major delayed until February 1992, stating it would be held on 9th April. Labour went into the campaign confident, as the opinion polls signalled that if they could maintain their position, Britain was headed for a hung parliament, or even the chance of a slim Labour majority government. 

The Conservatives were strategic in their attack of John Smith, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Labour’s economic proposals. This was articulated in their “Double Whammy” campaign poster, designed by the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, depicting a boxer with the slogans “1. More Taxes” and “2. Higher Prices” on his gloves. Chris Patten, the Tory Party chairman, decided that the campaign was to be predominantly negative, and focus not on their record in office but on the perceived implications of a Labour government regarding taxation and spending. 

The Conservatives only lost 0.3% share of the vote from 1987, even though the First-Past-The-Post electoral system resulted in a dramatic loss of their large majority from 102 seats to a humble 21 seats

Two misconceptions about the election are still prominent in the public consciousness. Firstly, the implications that the hubris of Neil Kinnock had in the last few days of the campaign, especially the infamous Sheffield Rally where Kinnock shouted, “We’re alright”, three times that was replayed as a soundbite on the news bulletins. Kinnock reflected after the election that this was a watershed moment that cost him Number 10; however, empirically a study of voting intentions signalled that the Sheffield rally had little impact, and it is only remembered by the electorate because of the extensive coverage it received many days after the election.

Secondly, whilst the Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzieran, ran the famous headline in the UK’s bestselling tabloid two days after Major’s surprise victory asserting that “It was the Sun wot won it”, academics and various reports have questioned the validity of this claim. They argue that analysis cannot be decisive when determining if the Sun had a meaningful impact in influencing the election result.

Loss of the Conservatives’ Image as Guardians of the Economy: Exchange Rate Mechanism & ‘Black Wednesday’

John Major only had six months to bask in the glory of his surprise general election victory…

In October 1990, Britain joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism- the monetary system that attempted to stabilise the currencies of the European Community in preparation for the introduction of the Euro, and the deeper economic and monetary integration of the Community. However, on 16th September 1992, the pound sterling was forced to withdraw from the ERM and was drastically devalued. 

The day was dubbed “Black Wednesday” and, as a result of Britain’s withdrawal, the Conservatives fell drastically in the opinion polls, a setback that would take over a decade to recover from. Notably, Major’s party could no longer claim to be the “guardians of the economy” in comparison to a Labour government. 

By 1997 Britain had largely recovered from the recession of 1990; unemployment had dropped from 3m in 1992 to 1.6m by spring 1997. Nonetheless, the damage to the Conservatives’ fiscal reputation was irreversible. There is consensus that “Black Wednesday” was a decisive factor in Tony Blair’s landslide New Labour victory in 1997.  

Ceasefire and the Road to Peace in Northern Ireland 

When Major took office, he opened up secret talks with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). He denied these meetings, famously stating in November 1993 that to “sit down and talk with Mr [Gerry] Adams and the Provisional IRA ... would turn my stomach"

On 15th December 1993, Major and the Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, delivered the “Downing Street Declaration” (DSD), which affirmed that the people of Northern Ireland had the political right to unify with the Republic of Ireland when a majority in the six counties consented to it.  The “new rules of the game” were established as dissident violence in Northern Ireland was temporarily halted, with the IRA agreeing to a ceasefire on 31st August 1994.

Whilst the ceasefire was broken after seventeen months on 6th February 1996, with the Docklands bombing of Canary Wharf, the success of the DSD marked the beginning of the end. The road for peace in Northern Ireland was slowly forged, leading to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 under New Labour. 

Europe, the Maastricht Treaty and the Bastards 

The European project; ever-closer union; deeper political and monetary integration – the issue of Europe has been a thorn in the side of both political parties ever since Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1973. 

Historically, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Labour Party tended to be more Eurosceptic than the Conservatives; however, under Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister and Neil Kinnock’s leadership of the Labour Party, a shift from left-wing Euroscepticism to right-wing Euroscepticism occurred. By the 1990s, a significant faction of Conservative backbenchers and three members of Major’s cabinet, nicknamed “the Bastards”, were worried about what deeper political and economic integration would mean for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. Major had promised to keep Britain “at the heart of Europe”, but the internal party division over the Maastricht Treaty ensured that his second premiership was all-consumed by the issue.

After securing concessions designed to appease Eurosceptics and backbenchers alike, Major signed the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991. The four main concessions he secured were: a UK opt-out of the single currency; an opt-out of the Social Charter; the removal of the word “federal” from the Treaty; and an interpretation and extension of the Treaty’s “subsidiarity” principle of Article V to allow for more policy areas to be dealt with at a national level before the European Commission initiated legislation.  

Nevertheless, these concessions were not enough to quell the fears of Conservative Eurosceptics. Major’s second ministry was defeated on 22 July 1993, 324 to 316, over a motion on the adoption of the Protocol on the Social Policy to comply with the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.The Conservative Maastricht rebels used the vote as an opportunity to undermine Major, as they were uneasy with the Treaty’s implications for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. The political damage this did to Major’s authority was huge, sparking a vote of (no) confidence. Nevertheless, he was able to survive 339 votes to 299, although his command over Parliament was deeply dented. 

The issue of Europe continued to bubble-on, resulting in a leadership election in June 1995; nevertheless, Major was able to hold on by defeating John Redwood, the Eurosceptic challenger and his former Secretary of State for Wales,  218 votes to 89 with 12 abstentions. 

The 1997 General Election

After a flurry of defections and by-election defeats, this meant that by December 1996, Major was leading a minority administration.  However, it is important to appreciate that Major was able to rely on the support of the Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party to avoid destabilising his government for the five months before the general election. 

A massive swing of 10.2% from Conservative to Labour saw Tony Blair sweep into 10 Downing Street in May 1997 on a landslide 179-seat majority. In his victory speech, the New Labour leader exclaimed that “a new dawn has broken has it not?”, as eighteen years of Conservative hegemony came to an end. 

Significantly, this was the Tories worst defeat since 1832. After almost two decades of Conservative rule, it was clear the electorate had rejected Major and the sentiment of his manifesto, it’s slogan being: “You can only be sure with the Conservatives”. They believed they would be safer with the centralism and professionalism displayed by New Labour, in contrast to the perceived weakness of Major’s leadership. Blair summarised the whole tone of the campaign in Prime Minister’s Questions on 25 April 1995, two years earlier when he stated that: “'I lead my party, he follows his”.  

In order to maintain the stability of his party in the aftermath of their catastrophic defeat, Major served as Leader of the Opposition for an additional seven months, resigning on 19th June 1997 and passing the reins of leadership to William Hague. Major announced in 2000 that he would not stand again in the 2001 General Election.


Historically, John Major will be looked upon kindly by the UK electorate as one of our great post-war Prime Ministers. He may not have had the charisma or dynamism of a Thatcher or Blair, but his considered and balanced approach to governance ensured significant outcomes. 

Sources and Further Reading 

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