John Major: a brief guide to Britain’s prime minister in the 1990s
A new fictionalised portrayal of John Major, prime minister of Britain between 1990–97 and the last Conservative in Downing Street in the 20th century, is upon us as Jonny Lee Miller takes on the role in season 5 of The Crown. Richard Toye explores how Major became the successor to Margaret Thatcher, his leadership style – and the real story of his approach to the royals…
Margaret Thatcher – who served as Britain’s first female prime minister from 1979 to 1990, having won three general elections – was always going to be a hard act to follow, regardless of what people thought of her political decisions. Her successor, John Major, at first achieved surprising success by leading the Conservatives to a record-breaking fourth election victory in 1992.
But soon after that unexpected triumph, things fell apart. For the majority of his time in Downing Street he had to battle a succession of crises and internal party enemies. The fact that he was personally liked and respected by many voters was not enough to save him from a landslide loss at the hands of New Labour in the 1997 general election.
Read more about the history behind each episode of The Crown season 5:
- The Crown S5 E1: ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’ and a second honeymoon
- The Crown S5 E2: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Norton’s book on Princess Diana
- The Crown S5 E3: exiled royals and the al-Fayeds
- The Crown S5 E4: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
- The Crown S5 E5 real history: ‘Camillagate’ tapes and a “war council” for the monarchy’s survival
- The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
- The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal education
- The Crown S5 E8 real history: Diana’s Panorama interview causes fireworks
- The Crown S5 E9 real history: the divorce settlement between Charles and Diana
The road to politics
Though he was often dismissively described as “grey” as a politician, Major was born in 1943 to a rather colourful family: his father was an aged, one-time music hall performer and owner of a garden ornament business; his mother was a former dancer. The young Major attended Rutlish School, a grammar school in southwest London, but, amidst his family’s financial troubles, he left with few qualifications. After a few years, he settled into a career in banking. In 1970, he married Norma Johnson and went on to have two children.
He always harboured political ambitions, however: joining the Young Conservatives as a teenager and being elected as a councillor in London in 1968. In 1979, in the election that brought Thatcher to power, Major was elected to a safe Tory seat, and he quietly grew in influence during the 1980s, entering the cabinet as chief secretary to the Treasury. Up to this point, his rise had largely been without trace.
While Thatcher had no plans to retire, she came to regard Major as a potential party leader in the future. During her turbulent final phase in office, she appointed him foreign secretary in July 1989, and then, just three months later, chancellor of the exchequer. Not long before her downfall, Major (who by then had become chancellor) helped persuade Thatcher, against her own better judgement, that Britain should join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which required the value of the pound to be maintained within a fixed band. He saw this as an anti-inflationary tool, but the decision turned out to have catastrophic consequences for his own premiership a few years later.
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Through the doors of Number 10
Following Thatcher’s forced resignation in November 1990, Major beat two other candidates, Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine, in the battle to replace her as leader of the Conservative Party. It was symbolic of his collegial approach that he gave both of his defeated rivals important posts in his cabinet, and yet also revealing of his political cunning that he handed Heseltine the tricky task of replacing the Community Charge (or ‘poll tax’), the highly controversial local government taxation system that had helped bring Thatcher down.
From the first, Major had problems with Thatcher, who now sat on the backbenches. “I shan’t be pulling the levers there, but I shall be a very good back-seat driver,” she told journalists. While Major wanted to preserve much of her legacy, he looked to be more emollient and consensual than the ‘Iron Lady’ had been. He would speak of creating “a nation at ease with itself” and of building a “classless society”.
Later in his memoirs, Major explained that when he talked of classlessness, he “wanted to say that the subtle calibrations of scorn in which the country rejoices, the endless puttings down and belittlings, so instinctive that we do not notice ourselves doing them, are awful.” As prime minister, he continued to push forward the privatisation agenda of the 1980s – in the case of the railways, this created short-term chaos and long-term structural problems. But Major cared genuinely about public services: the 1991 Citizen’s Charter was an initiative designed to make bureaucracy more accountable, more transparent and more focused on ordinary people.
A few months before Major had become prime minister, Saddam Hussein had launched his invasion of Kuwait, in August 1990. Major quickly established a warm relationship with US President George HW Bush and Britain was part of the coalition that drove the Iraqi forces out again in the Gulf War, which led to Major being generally considered to have had a “good war”. There was, however, no khaki election: he waited until April 1992 to go to the country.
By then, Labour was widely expected to sweep to power. Fighting as the underdog, despite being the incumbent, Major took to the streets, addressing the public from a soap box. He was rewarded with an upset win, though with a much-reduced majority, which over the next few years was progressively depleted through by-election losses. His luck was about to run out.
Scandal, schism and sleaze
Membership of the ERM had exacerbated Britain’s ongoing recession, as only painfully high interest rates could sustain sterling at the required parity. The pound came under growing pressure, and in the chaos of 16 September 1992 – ‘Black Wednesday’ – Major’s government was compelled to announce that it was withdrawing from the system. The economy recovered; the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence did not.
Equally damaging for the Tories was their division over the issue of Europe. At the time, the Maastricht Treaty, the foundational document of the European Union, signed in February 1992, looked like a negotiating triumph, as Britain secured important opt-outs on monetary and social policy. Still, a group of Conservative backbenchers, known as the Maastricht Rebels, could not be reconciled to any form of further European integration. They fought a bitter battle in the House of Commons against Major’s government, in which can be seen many of the origins of Brexit.
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On one occasion, unaware that he was being recorded, Major explained to a journalist why he did not sack the Eurosceptics in his own cabinet: “You and I can think of ex-ministers who are causing all sorts of trouble,” he said. "We don't want another three more of the bastards out there.” The mutineers took that label as a badge of pride.
His government would be further hurt by a succession of sexual and financial scandals that were dubbed by the press as “sleaze”. While he was not implicated personally in any of them, Major appeared unable to act effectively when each crisis arose. In fact, before he became prime minister, he had himself engaged in an affair with a fellow MP, Edwina Currie, although this revelation only came out after he left Downing Street.
John Major and the Royal Family
A convinced monarchist, Major had to deal with the challenges facing the Royal Family in 1992, dubbed an “annus horribilis” by Queen Elizabeth II. Chief among them was the very public breakdown of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. He met separately with the Queen, Charles, and Diana, to discuss the issue before the couple’s divorce in 1996. Major’s biographer, Anthony Sheldon, later revealed that Diana sent the prime minister several appreciative letters.
In his autobiography, Major discreetly refused to comment on the matter at all. Recently, in the weeks before the release of season 5 of The Crown, he has spoken out against a scene in which the then Prince Charles (played by Dominic West) meets with Major (Jonny Lee Miller) to discuss ousting the Queen; decrying the fictional meeting as a “barrel-load of nonsense”.
In truth, Major appears to be a sincere admirer of Britain’s new king. When presenting Charles with the 2013 Sir Winston Churchill Award, he commented: “Out recipient tonight has – over the years – faced his own criticism, his own setbacks, yet held firm to his own beliefs. That is the first of many reasons he is truly worthy of the award made to him.”
Major’s fall from office
Long before May 1997, it was clear that the Conservatives faced a drubbing at the hands of a resurgent New Labour. Leader Tony Blair later recalled that Major “had real appeal as a person… but his weakness was he took personally the fact that I tried so hard to dislodge him.” On the morning after the election, Major was gracious in defeat, observing: “When the curtain falls it is time to get off the stage.”
He stayed an MP until 2001, was knighted, and received the Order of the Garter (the oldest and most senior order of chivalry in Britain). He has continued to speak out on issues, particularly in recent years on Brexit. Yet Major has shown no inclination to go to the House of Lords. Sometimes dull in public, often warm and witty in private, it is to his credit that he could suffer a calamitous political downfall and still see a life beyond politics.
Richard Toye is professor of modern history at the University of Exeter. He is a historian of Britain in its global and imperial context in the period from the late-19th century to the present day. He is the author of Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Age of Promises: Electoral Pledges in Twentieth Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2021)