The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Article on Parliamentary Standards – 22 February 2005

The text of Mr Major’s article on Parliamentary Standards, published in The Daily Telegraph on 22nd February 2005. The article was entitled “Labour’s half-truths and spin are a cancer in the body politic”.


Since leaving office, I have not sought publicity. Even when provoked I have usually kept my counsel. Yet the changing character of the way politics is conducted is an issue on which it would be wrong to remain silent. The turnout at the last election was pitiful and is likely to be even more so at the next one – probably below that in Iraq, where voters ran the gauntlet of bomb and bullet. In one of the world’s most secure democracies, how can such disillusion have set in?

One cause is the way politics is conducted. It is a robust trade and can be tough, heartbreaking, even bitter. Politicians cannot squeal about this: we knew the rules when we joined up.

Even so, certain standards must be maintained. As Gladstone put it 125 years ago, our constitution depends “on the good sense and good faith of those who work it”. More specifically, our ancient system requires a respect for Parliament; strict impartiality in a Civil Service that must serve different political masters; a tolerance of opposing views; and a code of behaviour between parties that imposes restraints on how hostilities are conducted.

New Labour has undermined all these conventions. Anything goes if it serves its purpose. Its tactics have been so brilliantly effective against its political opponents that New Labour now uses them against all-comers: against critics; in relations with the Civil Service (which is why a Civil Service Act is demanded, even by senior Labour figures); and even inside Labour itself, to conduct a coup against “old” Labour.

A careful look at New Labour shows an administration divided into two camps: Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s. Attlee once remarked that “nothing grows under a heavy roller”. Under two heavy rollers – the Prime Minister and the Chancellor – only enmity thrives: a government run by two egos engaged in warfare can never lead to good policy.

New Labour’s style of governing has emasculated decision-making by Cabinet and cabinet committees; they still exist, of course, but only to take minor decisions and rubber-stamp important ones. Mr Blair and Mr Brown decide policy outside a collective decision-making process. Many traditional Labour figures regret this loss, but they have only themselves to blame that Cabinet has lost the habit of dissent and become a cipher. As a former Cabinet Secretary stated: “A Prime Minister is only as powerful as his colleagues allow him to be.”

How have they got away with it? They have abused procedures wherever they can; politicised a once-neutral Government Information Service; ignored conventions of straight and honest government; and deceived the public – even on issues of war and peace.

The lopsided composition of the Commons has made it easier for the Government to deal in half-truths and in the barefaced daily recitation of the unbelievable until it fixes itself in the public mind as if it were true. Our country has never seen anything like this before – certainly not on this scale. Politicians have always used spin to put a favourable gloss on events. No party has entirely clean hands. But the difference now is that, as New Labour uses it, truth is too often turned on its head. As a result, millions of electors believe the Government “lies” as a matter of course.

If the facts don’t fit the argument, then the facts become flexible. It is Orwellian. Words mean what they wish them to mean. Bad news is good. Up is down. Black is white. Fiction is fact. It is no wonder that, to a bewildered public, trust has collapsed.

“Trust me,” said Tony Blair back in 1997, “we’ll be whiter than white … purer than pure.”

Well, that is yet another promise not kept. The Government is now so lost to political black arts that it may never be able to find its way back to straightforward dealing.

Two years ago, I set out my concerns. Now, once again, what I see unfolding fills me with dismay. Alastair Campbell, now back as the Prime Minister’s spin-master-in-chief, denies any responsibility for “dirty tricks”, but he cannot complain if his name has become a byword for underhand behaviour: it is his past record that has made it so.

It doesn’t matter which trickster is deployed to sully the name of political opponents – Michael Howard is now firmly in their sights – there is always the authentic New Labour feel about it: it’s a smear; it’s anonymous; it’s untrue.

But the identity of the spinner is a side issue. He is merely a mercenary, a hired hand. It is not the monkey, but the organ-grinder, who makes the music. The culprit is the man who permits them to behave as they do: the Prime Minister.

It is easy to mock the Prime Minister’s depiction of himself as a “straight kind of guy”, but, to him, it is a self-portrait. Yet he employed the spinners. He knew they had form. He knew what they could – and would – do. He gave them authority. If it were not for the Prime Minister’s sanction, there would be no group to dig up dirt if it can be found; or invent it if not. As Jim Callaghan once parroted: “A lie can be halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on,” and, for 10 years, that maxim has been New Labour’s guiding star.

It has led it, when criticised, to play the man and not the ball, in a reflex action that has proved a mightily effective tool in warning off critics. It is a shabby way to conduct a democratic debate. Such tactics are a cancer in the body politic. The Prime Minister cannot avert his eyes – or evade his responsibility – any longer.

Every time the Government has been caught out, it promises that lessons have been learnt. We’re told the Prime Minister is “listening”. That he “understands”. That we should “move on”. It is nonsense, of course. The script soon changes. Within weeks, New Labour is back to its old ways.

Such behaviour cheapens our politics and leads the political system to become further detached from the electorate. We cannot afford that.

Nor can our system of government thrive if the tried and tested conventions that protect it from abuse continue to be thrown so casually aside.

When the Prime Minister has left the corridors of power far behind him, he will reflect and, unless he acts now, will regret – too late – the destructive manner of politics he permitted to take root. The Prime Minister can stop it. He should stop it. He would gain from stopping it – and so would we all.