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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Are the Tories reliving the John Major years? No. It’s much worse than that

Published by The Guardian (2nd November, 2017)

It was a candid tweet from a Conservative MP as the sex abuse scandal sent shock waves through Westminster. ‘Feels increasingly like 92-97 parliament,’ wrote Gary Streeter, who served as a minister under John Major. ‘No majority, no money, ripping ourselves apart over EU. That lasted 5 years. Oh dear.’

Streeter is right. There are stark similarities between the two administrations, from the powerless prime minister battling anti-Brussels zealots through to sexual misconduct claims threatening political stability. But the situation is far worse for the Tories now than during Major’s chaotic term. Theresa May is weaker, her government more incompetent, her party embroiled in a more wounding civil war, the morality scandal more profound – and the country confronting a far greater crisis over Europe.

For a start, Major won an unexpected election victory rather than throwing away a majority, like the bumbling May. The grey man stumbled through sleaze after his silly back-to-basics speech and crashed out of the exchange rate mechanism. Aided by heavyweights such as Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke, however, his government steered the economy back on to a sound footing – although New Labour took all the credit, having helped to shred Major’s reputation.

Major was a decent man who ran a serious government with some ambitious aims. He took risks and left a legacy from the National Lottery’s funding of the arts and sport through to nurturing the Irish peace process. Even on Europe, despite his shrinking majority, a hostile media and a selfish bunch of hard-right ‘bastards’, Major eventually turned on his internal critics. He challenged them with a leadership election then dumped his defeated rival John Redwood from the cabinet.

May is also a decent person. But after her election debacle she is a frighteningly frail prime minister who gives the impression of being in office but not in power. She clings on to Downing Street, a shallow leader surrounded by too many second-raters and scared of risk, let alone of promoting progressive legislation for fear it might cause a government collapse. Instead of standing up to her chief troublemaker, she retains Boris Johnson as foreign secretary – despite reports that even the spooks do not trust such a slippery joker.

It is pitiful to observe – especially given the scale of challenges confronting the country and divisions scarring the nation, so much more profound than 25 years ago. Chief among them is Brexit, where the government is still absurdly riven with fissures and unsure of its approach despite triggering the two-year article 50 countdown eight months ago. This was almost criminal behaviour, given the stakes involved in securing orderly withdrawal (unless it can be averted).

As the Tories flagellate themselves over Europe, it underlines the foolishness of successive leaders ever seeking to appease the hard right. But this time the party faces an existential crisis, not just a period in opposition as punishment. Even in its most optimistic scenario – one that sees benign withdrawal based on an agreed deal with Brussels and government survival – the party will be held responsible for Brexit. Its retreat into nativism and reinvention of the nasty party makes the Tory brand toxic to younger voters, which in their terms means under 50 years old.

But the problems go far deeper than the Brexit shipwreck. The economy is in a shaky state with poor productivity, debt-laden households and inflation forcing up interest rates. From health to housing, social care to stagnant incomes, serious issues that inflame discontent are left largely unaddressed. Technology is reshaping lives with startling rapidity, led by powerful behemoths that operate in contempt of national governments. Meanwhile, the opposition is led by old Marxists, not new moderates.

The foreign backdrop is even more alarming. Major took office at a time of naive hope in the west after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Shortly after his election win, US academic Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, proclaiming the triumph of liberal democracy. Now look around the planet and it seems a more dismal place: nationalism resurgent from the White House to the Kremlin, religious extremism on the rampage and autocracy on the rise.

Even the sex scandal in Westminster seems to presage something darker. Major’s appeal for a return to traditional values backfired into a series of prurient personal scandals, several of which underlined political hypocrisy. Now we see a glimpse of male hegemony that led to grotesque sexual exploitation, including allegations that even rape has been covered up in pursuit of power. Hopefully it will lead to a revolution in female empowerment and equality, but it will come at a heavy political cost for the body politic.

There are definite echoes of the Major years with this miserable May government as it struggles over Europe, economic difficulties and now serious sex scandal. But Major was a stronger leader at the helm of a more substantial government in a more stable world. Things don’t always get better.

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