During Iain Duncan Smith’s brief leadership of the Conservative Party, and in my first years as a Tory MP, I went to a dinner at which John Major was the speaker. The former Prime Minister produced a bad policy idea (hypothecating healthcare taxes: the NHS was in the news at the time), and was rather sharp about a Shadow Minister (Bill Cash: then Shadow Attorney General). I was thus less surprised than some of my fellow journalists when Sir John made a speech earlier this week advocating another bad policy idea (windfall taxes) and was rather sharp about a Cabinet Minister (Iain Duncan Smith).
For the truth is that beneath his pleasant manner, Sir John has always had a rather pettish side. His admirers would say that he is entitled to be vinegary about those who opposed him over the Maastricht Treaty, and they certainly put their finger on a main point, whether one agrees with them or not. Major’s handling of the interlaced issues of Europe and the economy divided the Party 20 years or so ago, and much of the commentary on his speech is seeing the settling of old scores. To Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail, Major is a villain; to Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph, he is a hero. I think the best lens through which to view him is through the timing of those two policy ideas.
As I say, the NHS was in the news when I heard Sir John speak ten or so years ago, and energy bills are so today. Margaret Thatcher was not a regular reader of newspapers herself, but relied on Bernard Ingham, her rebarbative press secretary, to produce a daily digest. Sir John, by contrast, not only read the press but worried about it, to the Sherlock Holmesian point of sleuthing who had leaked what to whom. A danger inherent in such an approach for a political leader is that you can find yourself being blown hither and thither by puff of today’s headlines and editorials.
The most reliable means of lowering energy bills in the medium and long term is to break the monopoly of the Big Six. In the shorter term, cutting green taxes would also have an impact, as Mark Wallace has been arguing on this site. John O’Sullivan makes a case against windfall taxes on ConservativeHome today that is as well-argued now as when it was first made during the late 1970s but, whether one agrees with it or not, it is hard to see why a windfall tax on the energy companies would produce lower bills for consumers, though it would certainly rake in some cash for the Treasury and doubtless make a lot of people feel better.
There is a big place in politics for making people feel better. But the more one thinks about Sir John’s idea, the more one grasps why he won a record number of votes in 1992 but was buried in a landslide in 1997. He has a real feel for poorer people in strained circumstances. It is one that David Cameron and George Osborne lack, simply because, unlike Sir John, they have never been in such circumstances themselves (or poor). The latter’s ordinariness was an electoral asset in 1992. But he is not, as his predecessor was, strategically minded, which helps to explain why his Government got lost on the long road to 1997. A windfall tax on energy profits now, like not ruling out Euro membership then, doesn’t grip the core issues at stake.
No, Sir John was almost certainly not floating an idea for Downing Street or the Treasury, but responding to the needs of a section of the electorate for which he has a feel. But it doesn’t follow that his solution to one of their main problems is the right one. Perhaps we will hear more from him as the next election nears, though it would be odd for more noises off to come from a man who at heart has always been a Party loyalist, who sees David Cameron as a fellow moderate Tory, and who has been a reliable support for the leadership to date. Number Ten won’t see any such interventions as “helpful” – which in a broader sense, if he has no more to offer than new taxes, they certainly won’t be.