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Friday 15th February 2013 | 11:54
WORDS: SAM MACRORY
There is, so the cliché goes, nothing as ex as an ex politician. But in the case of a former Prime Minister, the ex-factor is taken to a new level.
From the pampered surroundings of 10 Downing Street, with its coterie of advisors and support staff, hotlines to international leaders, and the watching media waiting on your every word, to a rapid handing over of power and the unceremonious arrival of the removal men. The end is brutal.
After that, what next? Seats on boards, score-settling memoirs and lucrative lecture tours help to boost the coffers, but for politicians who have dominated the national stage – and quite possibly been ushered to the exit long before they wanted to - adjusting to a life on the side-lines doesn’t come easily.
Of the quartet of ex-PMs alive today, Mrs Thatcher is too frail to make a contribution to public life, Gordon Brown only sporadically breaks cover as he licks the wounds of the 2010 General Election defeat, while Tony Blair trots the globe and watches his bank balance grow, still too scarred by the Iraq War to be welcomed fully back into the Labour fold.
So against expectations it is Sir John Major, the Conservative leader who led his party to its worst electoral defeat since the Great Reform Act of 1832, suffered repeated ridicule in print and on television, and endured seven years of sniping, rebellion, and backbench splits, who has established himself as the country’s most distinguished, and increasingly respected, former Prime Minister.
And, partly because he knew it was coming, he seems utterly at ease in a potentially awkward role. For five years, after his surprising 1992 General Election victory, Major was able to prepare for his exit. “When the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage” he declared, before contentedly spending the afternoon watching cricket at the Oval. It was an end without bitterness and, for Major, provided welcome respite from the strains of office. He set off the US speaking circuit, signed up to advise the US private equity group Carlyle and made his millions without attracting a smidgeon of the flak which came Blair’s way, moving, as he often has in the last 15 years, under the radar.
Since then the passing of the years has been kind. Major’s 1992 victory leaves him as the last Tory leader to secure an outright majority, when he won more votes – 14 million – than any British Prime Minister has ever done. He led the country during a successful Gulf War. He steered the economy out of the 1990-92 recession. He made vital steps towards securing peace in Northern Ireland. But most relevantly of all for the man currently residing in Number 10, Major led the Conservative Party when, to borrow a phrase of David Cameron’s, it couldn’t stop banging on about Europe.
Yesterday at noon, Sir John gave a speech at Chatham House on Britain’s role in the EU. No longer the pin-up for grey-suited middle men, Sir John now wears what looks like a well-tailored navy number. And when he intervenes in public, which is rarely, his audience listen.
For Thursday’s speech was Sir John’s first reaction to his successor’s promise to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Though against a referendum “in principle”, Sir John's intervention was a useful one for David Cameron. To leave the EU, Sir John warned, “would be a jump into a void”, as he set out a case for Britain’s continued membership on new, more favourable terms.
Sir John has previously described himself as being on a “sabbatical” from front line politics, but from the moment he hit the TV studios in the wake of the 2010 election to promote the idea of a Coalition with the Lib Dems, he has been regularly consulted by David Cameron and consistently helpful when required. Before the summer, Mr Cameron will name the latest round of Conservative peers. Perhaps it is time for this ex Prime Minister to return to work.
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