A first-time voter in a general election that takes place in 2024 will have been born the best part of ten years after John Major left Downing Street as Prime Minister.
He will consequently have no memory of the Major years at all. None of his poll-defying victory in 1992. Nor of his catastophic defeat in 1997, the worse for the Conservatives since 1832, after five years of “sleaze” scandals and tax rises.
The same applied to a first-time voter in 2019, 2017 and even one born in 2015, the year of David Cameron’s election win.
One has to go back to the 2010 election to find first-time voters who will have had even vestigial childhood memories of the Major years. This seems to me to be the best context in which to view his Boris Johnson-critical speech this week, and indeed almost every speech that Major makes.
His supporters will applaud the presentation of him as a kindly old gentleman with higher standards from a better age. His opponents will protest that it’s a travesty of the truth.
It’s hard for both, and for a mass of ConservativeHome readers, and indeed for me (aged 62 and counting) to view Major from what I think is a necessary perspective. Essentially, he doesn’t count for very much in today’s politics, unlike the memory of his predecessor.
Brexit is an obvious contributor to what is surely his fading hold among those Party members who remember him. Pro-Remain former Conservative Prime Ministers now look like remnants from a distant age.
David Cameron and Theresa May complete the trio, and both their premierships, especially hers, will be viewed by historians through the lens of leaving the EU – despite Cameron having never lost an election, won one outright and triumphed in two of the three referendums in his time (the others being the AV and Scottish independence polls).
It is hard to imagine either of them, or Major come to that, being paraded from Party conference platforms – as both Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath were in William Hague’s time as leader.
Which takes me to another reason for Major’s outdatedness, at least in the eyes of many party members. Successive Conservative leaders have tended to distance themselves from their predecessors, or tried to. Think Johnson and May; or May and Cameron.
Cameron himself was (perhaps I should write “is”) on good terms with Major, who he helped when working as a CCHQ staffer to prepare for Prime Minister’s questions, along with a youngish Tory MP called…David Davis.
I’m told that the first person Cameron phoned after contacting Buckingham Palace about his forthcoming resignation was Major. The latter occasionally intervened publicly on the former’s behalf, too – for example, criticising Gordon Brown’s 2010 pre-election visit to Afghanistan as a party political stunt.
Nonetheless, one of the key elements of early Cameron modernisation was the distancing of the then new leadership from the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s ousting and the Major years.
They left a decade of Tory trauma in their wake, and the new leader was determined to look forward to “change, optimism and hope”. Brown eventually sought to turn the tables on Cameron, when Prime Minister, by making a big of thing of inviting Thatcher to Downing Street (which Cameron too duly did after 2010).
It is strange but probably true to claim that the recent Conservative leaders most fondly thought of by Party members are those who didn’t become Prime Minister.
William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all knuckled down to work – the first almost ten years after his election defeat in 2001, the second having never fought an election as leader at all. Hague served Cameron as Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, and Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary until resigning.
He and Howard have both been shapers of the future: Duncan Smith by reinventing the Conservative social justice tradition, and Howard by promoting Cameron and George Osborne, and so paving the way for their era.
As for Major, I’m somehow reminded of the words of George H.W Bush, Major’s contemporary, in Andrew Gimson’s Brief Lives of American Presidents. “I am lost between the glory of Reagan – monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero – and the trials and tribulations of my sons.”