The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Article on Gordon Brown – 7 May 2009

The text of Sir John Major’s article on Gordon Brown, published in the Daily Telegraph on 7th May 2009.


In recent days, there have been many comparisons drawn between the present plight of the Labour Government and the final months of its Conservative predecessor. Similarities there may be – but the differences are striking.

The Conservatives were in their 18th year of government: Labour is in its 12th. The Conservatives had no majority, and were at the mercy of a handful of rebels: Labour still enjoys a large majority. Conservative divisions were over policy – notably Europe – in which the dissenters believed they must prevail for the national interest: Labour has no such excuse. And – crucially – the Tory economy was well on track to full vigour: Labour’s is in the mire.

In the mid-1990s, I was acutely aware the Tories were likely to lose the election. Indeed, on the morrow of the 1992 election victory, Chris Patten and I speculated on the unlikelihood of a fifth win: it was, we thought, stretching the democratic elastic just too far.

Throughout the 1992-97 parliament, we tried to do what we believed was right for the country, although much of our programme was controversial – especially in our own party. We persevered with policies we believed would curb inflation and bring long-term economic benefit. So they did, but at the expense of our electoral prospects.

Labour, by contrast, has retreated to tactics I believe they will live to regret. Too often, in the face of public hostility, they cite the last Conservative government as a precedent, the not-so-subliminal message being: “They’re worse than us.”

It is not convincing. Take the roasting they received for mishandling the Gurkhas: Labour’s defence was that the Conservative government “had never done anything about it”. Nor had earlier Labour governments, and for the same reason: it had not been an issue. And if it had been an issue, why was there not a peep from Labour about it in the 1990s? Opposition days in Parliament are not a New Labour invention.

After 12 years in office, excuses such as this are bordering on the desperate.

Why do they do it? Habit, of course, for fact has never got in the way of New Labour fiction – it has been in their DNA since the mid-1990s.

But now it seems they have lost all touch with reality: in their minds, what they say is truth, even if the facts don’t support it. Such delusion is dangerous – especially for a government.

And it is continual. Since the Prime Minister can no longer defend Labour policies, he attacks a fictional Tory past at almost every Prime Minister’s Questions. To Mr Brown, the Tories are the enemy, therefore any criticism – however wrong or distorted – is permissible. Let us take one of his familiar attacks on David Cameron, flawed from beginning to end. According to Mr Brown, Mr Cameron was adviser to Norman Lamont when he raised interest rates to 15 per cent, and created three million unemployed. This is ludicrous. The belief that a 26-year-old political adviser would have been responsible for a Conservative government’s economic policies is fanciful. And – in any event – how does Mr Brown know what advice Mr Cameron offered his minister? He may well have advised against the government’s policies and been over-ruled.

But Mr Brown doesn’t care: he simply wants to smear Mr Cameron for events over which he knows he had no control. The premise of his argument is also incorrect: interest rates were not raised to 15 per cent by Norman Lamont in the 1990s, but by Nigel Lawson in the 1980s.

As chancellor, Norman reduced them from 14 per cent to 6 per cent.

The Prime Minister is wrong about unemployment, too. First, a pedantic point: it did not reach three million under the Conservative government, but peaked well below. Furthermore, it was rising sharply long before Norman Lamont became chancellor, and David Cameron his adviser. Mr Brown knows all this, yet persists with charges that are fundamentally unworthy.

And he is not alone. Other ministers continue to claim that Labour inherited three million unemployed whereas, in 1997, the claimant count was 1.6 million and falling rapidly.

But Labour has not won three elections by allowing truth to get in the way of a good smear. The uncomfortable reality for Labour is that, however unpopular the last Conservative administration may have been, it was the only government in the last 50 years to leave office with every single economic indicator improving.

In 1996-7, the economy had been growing for five years, and borrowing – now the nation’s nemesis – was £22 billion (although one of Labour’s “recalculations” upped it to £35 billion).

Even so, the estimate for the current year is a staggering £175 billion. Similarly, total debt has doubled, and the taxpayer will be funding Labour’s debt mountain for many years to come.

That the Conservatives bequeathed such a buoyant economy is not a truth universally acknowledged, for – in order to claim credit for the economy – Labour has peddled “disinformation” about its inheritance from the day it took office. The truth – apparent to independent economists – is that the years of prosperity under Labour were based on Conservative supply side changes (in the 1980s) and Tory destruction of inflation (in the 1990s).

Did Labour build on that legacy? No. Instead, they squandered it, and will leave the country near bankrupt as a result. This slide from riches to rags inspires another Labour deception: that our present woes are entirely due to the financial crisis that began in America. Of course, there is an international dimension, but Labour’s alibi is – at best – a half-truth. Even if there had been no international crisis, the UK would still be in recession; our debts would still be at record levels; our pension system would still be wrecked; our education system would still need reform; our health system would still be unable to cope; and our prison system would still be overflowing with inmates who should not be there, while others who should are being released early.

The Prime Minister hopes to win the next election but, in his heart, he must recognise his party is likely to lose. I offer him one piece of genuinely well-meant advice: fight the next election on policies, not personalities; on fact, not fiction; on substance, not spin. The people of this country deserve such a campaign, so that they can make an informed choice.

It may not win Labour the next election, but Gordon Brown will leave office a more contented man.