THE BLOG
13/11/2013 07:00 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Cameron's Major Problem

John Major is treated by many - including those who hail from the Right - as a footnote in postwar political history. Indeed, being sandwiched in-between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair - two titans of the postwar period - has done little to help burnish his credentials. Nonetheless, he has been shockingly underestimated and Conservatives are just starting to learn the consequences of this gargantuan error. And they're learning it the hard way.

John Major has been underestimated because, unlike Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, he was not able to fight against an 'other' - an incumbent administration, espousing dissimilar social and economic policies. Instead, he was the continuity prime minister, understood to be either in explicit or implicit agreement with almost everything the Thatcher governments had said or done.

In contrast, when Margaret Thatcher led her party, she advertised her politics as the antithesis to that of the incumbent Labour government. Similarly, when Tony Blair was leader of the opposition he, too, marketed New Labour as a decisive break from what had come before. That gave them both a dynamism that was not available to John Major - an 'otherness', of which Thatcher and Blair were beneficiaries, not architects, but which conspired against Major to paint him as an irrelevance.

But to paint John Major as irrelevant, in many respects, could not be further from the truth. For example, say 'privatisation' and most people will think of Thatcher, but most of the privatisations of state-owned utilities took place under Major. Moreover, in electoral terms, John Major's achievements are not to be underestimated - in 1992, he delivered his party the most votes ever achieved in British electoral history (14 million) and, of course, he was the last Conservative leader to secure his party a majority in the House of Commons.

Despite such a lack of recognition of his achievements whilst in office, though, John Major has been largely content, since retiring, with watching the cricket and doing the occasional, uncontroversial interview - again, usually about the cricket.

But this gratification with the uncontroversial has waned of late, with him making forays into Conservative ranks on deeply contentious issues. The first such sortie was his call for a windfall tax on the profits of energy companies; and the second was a lambasting of the "upper echelons of power" which, he says, are dominated by a privately educated, middle class elite.

The fact that over half of the Cabinet are privately educated gives the impression that John Major's comments on social mobility are a direct attack on David Cameron and his colleagues. In addition, proposing that the state intervenes in the pricing of energy provides much succour to Ed Miliband's demand for an energy price freeze. And - when taken, together - these comments appear to be too close to Ed Miliband's One Nationism for David Cameron's comfort.

However, the reason why these are deeply contentious issues is because they speak to the real and deeply held concerns of those Sir John calls the 'net curtain middle class'. These are those who are not living in poverty, but struggle to make ends meet and believe they are forgotten by the political class.

But it's not just what is being said that's the problem, but who is saying it. John Major is a working class boy 'made good'. He epitomises the Conservative Dream - similar to the American Dream - that through hard work and determination anyone can break free from the shackles of their modest background. He beckons from the precise demographic from which the Conservatives need strong support, if they stand any chance of forming a majority government. And he is quickly becoming the figurehead of that demographic.

The most damaging aspect of John Major's interventions for David Cameron, though, is that he thought it necessary to make them in the first place. For - logic dictates - only a former leader who believes his views are under-represented would choose to iterate them at all - especially in such a public fashion - considering the furore which would doubtless follow. It appears as though he is beginning to view himself as the social conscience of the Conservative Party which again, logic dictates, infers that he believes there is not currently one present.

And Sir John is fulfilling his new, self-appointed role of Conservative Social Conscience-in-chief with a devastating efficiency and much aplomb. Indeed, he's sending shock waves through Westminster, which can never be a bad thing if it keeps a government on its toes.

Here's an anecdote which sums the situation up, nicely.

When I was six years' old, I was taken to a press conference at which the mayor of Sutton (coincidentally, the same authority in which John Major was both born and schooled) was to address journalists on a new council initiative. The room was packed. However, when he stepped up to the microphone - about to start his speech - I walked on stage and asked him in a loud and enquiring tone: "you're not as important as John Major, are you?" The room found this rather amusing. I am not sure the mayor did, though - he simply responded: "no, I don't believe I am." With the mayor's ego publicly destroyed, my father hurriedly fetched me from the stage.

Most people, on hearing this story, are surprised that a six year old would know who the prime minister is - indeed, children tend not to be conscious of such things. In a similar - but more deliberate - vein, John Major has slipped from the collective Conservative conscious. They could choose to continue with their relegation of him to the footnotes of history and hope he returns to his beloved cricket, but - as his message resonates with the public - such a road would be taken at their peril.