The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at CBI Annual Dinner – 5 September 2019

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir John Major at the CBI dinner in Glasgow on 5 September 2019.

It’s a great pleasure to be here this evening.

This is not the speech I intended to deliver. But we are not living through normal times ……

In Westminster, Ministers who wish to leave Europe without a deal are playing fast and loose with the future of our United Kingdom.

To achieve his aims, the Prime Minister even announced plans to prorogue Parliament – to be clear, that means to shut it down – to prevent MPs voting against a “no-deal” Brexit.

I cannot believe any previous Prime Minister – from Pitt, to Disraeli, to Churchill, to Thatcher – would have even contemplated such an action.

They regarded Parliament as Sovereign, not a rubber stamp – useful only to approve the Prime Minister’s wishes.

To thwart a “no-deal” Brexit, Parliament is now about to agree legislation that will prevent the UK from leaving without a deal.

In retaliation, the Prime Minister removed the Whip from 21 Conservative Members of Parliament who opposed the Government.

This is a rare, but valid, discipline, and one I used myself – but with a difference. Usually, the Whip is restored before an Election, as I did in the 1990s after promises of good behaviour.

But, this time, the punishment goes further. Conservative MPs are being de-selected and thrown out of the Party – their careers ended for voting with their conscience, and for what they believe is the right policy for their constituents and their country.

These MPs are not wild, fringe figures. Some are long-term loyalists, like my friends Ken Clarke, Nick Soames and Alastair Burt.

Others are younger MPs, prepared to sacrifice their political future for their country.

That takes character and courage. Such men and women adorn Parliament, and the millions whose views they represent will not forgive or forget that they have been treated so brutally, whilst the Brexiteers – who voted regularly against Mrs May – now sit in the Cabinet, and reside at No 10.

The legitimate concerns of those who have been banished from the Party; their sturdy independence; their repeated support for a Brexit deal; their long and loyal public service to the Party; seem to be worth nothing – unless they become cyphers, parroting the views of a Prime Minister influenced by a political anarchist, who cares not a fig for the future of the Party I have served all my life.

We have seen over-mighty advisers before. It is a familiar script. It always ends badly. I offer the Prime Minister some friendly advice: get rid of these advisers before they poison the political atmosphere beyond repair. And do it quickly.

There is no need for them to be led out of Downing Street by armed police, but go they should. And now.

And, Prime Minister – at the same time – reinstate those Members of Parliament you have expelled because, without them – and others like them – we will cease to be a broad-based national Party, and be seen as a mean-minded sect.

The Government must change its tone.

Ministers routinely insult half the electorate as “Remoaners”. The surgeon who drew up the Yellowhammer risk register of epilepsy and neurology drugs is told he is a “fear-mongering Remainer”.

Businessmen are warned that a negative attitude on Brexit will lead to their companies being frozen out of any future Government consultation.

This is behaviour I never thought to see from any British Government, and it must stop.

The abuse comes from Cabinet Ministers; and the threats from No 10 Special Advisers.

I repeat: it must stop.

Ahead lie many challenges. If we are to meet them we need Government of the highest quality, not Government by bluster and threat in a climate of aggressive bullying.

Without decisions in the long-term British interest, we will fail future generations. We need our four nations to come together as, perhaps, they have never done before.

And yet, at this very moment, when unity is so crucial, our United Kingdom is being torn apart by the divisions of Brexit.

My view of Brexit is no secret. It has never changed. For me, it is not a matter of ideology, it is a matter of practicalities.

I believe Brexit will be bad for our four countries: bad for our future, bad for industry and commerce, and bad for millions of individuals – most notably, the young and those who have very little.

One of Brexit’s most pernicious effects is that those with the least will be hurt the most. Wealth will not trickle down, but hardship will. For many – myself included – that offends to the core, and transcends old instincts and old loyalties.

Many supporters of Brexit declare proudly that they are prepared to bear an economic hit if we leave Europe. I am sure they are sincere.

But I ask them to think more of those – the majority – who cannot afford to take such a hit. Do they not matter? Of course they do. Are they really to be ignored? For, if they are, the divisions in our society will only fester and grow.

Our world today has three dominant influences: the United States, China and the European Union. Their size and power means they will be pre-eminent in addressing global problems such as climate change, trade rules, technology standards and control of financial markets.

The giants of our world will decide these issues. Once outside Europe, we British will have little or no voice. We are not used to being outside the inner circles of decision-making – and we will hate it.

Until Brexit, the world has seen the UK as a leading member of the EU, able to shape its policy, and as the closest ally of the United States.

But now, as we leave the EU, the United States is turning away from Europe and towards the Pacific.

The EU gone: America looking elsewhere. Once that happens, our ability to advance our national interests will fall. No “ifs. No “buts”.

But there is a wider mischief. By leaving the EU, we weaken it.

Anti-Europeans may cheer, but a weaker Europe leaves the UK more at the mercy of decisions taken by a – I hope temporarily – dysfunctional United States, and a long-term autocratic China.

It also leaves the UK more vulnerable to Putin’s aggressive and assertive Russia. None of that will be welcome, but it is the inevitable legacy of Brexit.

Our new UK Government knows this to be true. Yet they ignore it – and pursue our exit from Europe on an artificial date, without a deal.

Some do so for ideological reasons. Others for political and personal advantage.

Neither the ideologue nor the self-interested Brexiteer appears to put our national wellbeing first.

Our new Cabinet has no majority and no mandate. Governments change personnel – even their Prime Ministers – within the normal term of a Parliament, but not like this: the composition of the present Cabinet is more than the usual changing of the guard.

It more resembles an entirely new Government after a General Election: but this Government was not elected.

The lack of its own mandate is not the only impediment to its moral authority to change the whole direction of our country. The new Cabinet is chalk and cheese in character to the one elected two years ago.

It is not a Cabinet of all available talents. It is a faction of a faction, with no counter-balance of opinion to hold it back. Upon Brexit, the Cabinet non–believers are mere window dressing. They will not be listened to, and will always be out-voted.

This is a Cabinet committed to deliver Brexit “do or die”, “come what may”, as the Prime Minister puts it. They are pledged to this. Their seat at the Cabinet table depends upon accepting whatever deal the inner core of “hard-line” Brexiteers decide upon.

The campaign that won the Referendum, with undeliverable promises and assertions that were then – and are still – false, are now in Downing Street, and in power.

They have not, as promised, united the nation. Far from it.

Instead, they have locked out half the electorate. Whilst pleading the “will of the people”, they have redefined Brexit into the hardest and most uncompromising breach with Europe.

This is not what was pledged when people voted to leave the EU. Back then, a deal with Europe was promised. As it was in the Conservative Manifesto for the last election. And in Parliament ever since.

Let us be absolutely clear on this point: there is no electoral mandate – nor has there ever been – for a “no deal” Brexit.

So, when Cabinet Ministers tell us that is what our four nations voted for we, the electors, know that is emphatically not the truth.

In Scotland, in Northern Ireland, and in many parts of England – the majority view has been utterly ignored. So have the young.

And so have the many minority communities who, quite rightly, were offended and repelled by the anti-immigrant sentiment that powered the “Leave” campaign.

Once the Brexit blindfold falls away there will be a heavy price to pay for these factional politics.

The Prime Minister tells us he is a “One-Nation” Conservative – except, as we see, when it is convenient for him not to be so.

Yet his strongest support has come from colleagues who could never be described as “One-Nation” Tories, and who would be aghast if they thought he would genuinely govern in that tradition.


My fear is that Brexit will unsettle the unity of our UK. The Union is not England writ large. It belongs to Scotland too, and has served both our nations well.

Today, the risk of separation is growing – but it is not inevitable.

The core ambition of the Scottish Government is an independent Scotland – free of the Union with England. In England, the Brexit campaign has promoted English nationalism.

The English Nationalists affect not to care about separation. They care more about leaving Europe. But the collapse of Unionism in England, and ambition for independence in Scotland, could lead to a calamitous outcome for us both.

If she will bear the cost, I have never doubted that Scotland could govern herself.

But I believe Scotland and England together are greater than the sum of their parts. That is why I am a Unionist.

If Scotland secedes, it will weaken every part of the United Kingdom – including Scotland.

By weaken, I don’t simply mean losing the disbursements of the Barnett Formula. I mean losing trade without barriers. Trade without borders. Trade without tariffs. Today, trade across the Union is as simple as trade between Glasgow and Edinburgh. This would not be so after separation.

The risk for Scottish prosperity is that the volume of trade with England is three and a half times larger than trade between Scotland and the EU. But if Scotland abandons the Union, those tariff-free, barrier-free, border-free advantages could be lost.

But the Union is also about culture and identity.

It is about mutual benefits to our way of life, our international influence, our world profile, our defence and security, our research and learning, and all the aspects of our long and close relationship.

For 300 years, England and Scotland have faced the world together with shared values and mutual interests. That should be cherished, not thrown away.

Yet, it could be, if Nationalists – in England and Scotland – focus on “England First” and “Scotland First”, rather than both nations in harmony.

I fully understand why Scotland has reasons for grievance.

Five years ago, Scots voted to remain in the UK and, with it, the EU: but they now see English votes taking them out of Europe.

But even legitimate resentment is no basis for wise and thoughtful policy. Nor does it overcome the problems of independence.

The fiscal gap. Higher taxes. Lower spending. The vulnerability of greater isolation. They will affect every Scot: but all of this is avoidable if good neighbourliness replaces the bitter hostilities of nationalism.

England and Scotland have long united around a common patriotism. Nationalism is not patriotism.

If we let nationalism divide us – Scottish nationalism or English nationalism – we will create a schism that cannot be bridged. And, if that comes to pass, we will all be the losers – in this generation and far beyond.


I come back to business – and what lies ahead. In the run-up to Brexit, there were glowing promises of milk and honey in a future “Global Britain”. It is a brilliant and enticing slogan but yet another fable.

The deceit is breathtaking. It turns truth on its head.

Brexit will reduce our global reach, not enhance it.

On the day we leave the EU, we will lose trade deals with over 70 countries. These were negotiated by the EU but only for its members. All our present trade advantages will go with them.

It will take many years to replace them. And – if/when we do so – will British business get the same advantages as now? Of course not. How can we?

The European market is the richest free trade market ever known. Our British market is one-eighth its size – and one-eighth its attraction.

Any bilateral deal we strike will never match the deal the EU can obtain on our behalf.

Since the referendum, the EU has new deals with Japan, South Korea, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. All of these could have benefited the UK. Post Brexit, none of them will.

Our Brexiteer Cabinet knows this, but won’t admit it: instead they try and hide it. Ignoring what they have thrown away, they promise deals with America, India and China.

That is the right ambition. But it may not be achievable and – where it is – it will involve the UK making concessions.

While Mr Trump makes extravagant promises of a “great deal” – and no doubt it would be for America – Larry Summers, a former US Treasury Secretary scorns the UK’s trade ambitions as “delusional”.

America is poised to demand deep access to our agriculture and the NHS. The Prime Minister says that won’t happen – but there again he said he would “lie down in front of the bull-dozers at Heathrow Airport”, and we have yet to see that …….

In any event, any deal requires the approval of Congress, and Republican and Democrat leaders have said they will block it if our Brexit departure harms Ireland – as it undoubtedly will.

So we should not rely on a deal any time soon.

And what deal is likely with India if they demand freely available visas? Or with China if they demand acquiescence in their policy towards Hong Kong: even the most supine Cabinet could not accept that.

Far from “Global Britain” post Brexit, my fear is that we will become less global than we have been for generations.


There will be people here tonight of all political persuasions, and of none.

I am a conservative by conviction, not background, and have been since I first began to think for myself. As a boy, I learned the old adage about speaking truth to power. Today, I assert that it is just as important for power to speak truth to people.

But, at the moment, it is not.

Too often – instead of uncomfortable truths – we are offered false hopes and undeliverable promises. The public deserves to know what lies ahead without optimistic embellishment.

And if they discover – too late – that they were misled, then distrust for our politics will grow, and millions of disillusioned voters may find themselves politically homeless.

Many businesses, many people, are fearful of the short-term turbulence of Brexit. They are right to be so, although the scale is unknown. But, however turbulent, we will come through the initial shock – even if we do leave without a deal.

But I am far more concerned about the long-term.

The danger that our United Kingdom will become less relevant year after year. The fear that we are being led out of the mainstream and into the slipstream. That we will become followers and not leaders.

That is no place for nations with a history as rich and as proud as our own.

We need to be side by side with our neighbours on the Continent – not face to face in confrontation.

The Government continues to use deeply insensitive language in its pursuit of Brexit.

The Bill that was introduced on Tuesday, with the sole purpose of allowing our Sovereign Parliament to take back control – which, as I recall, was one of the central planks of the Vote Leave campaign – has now been, quite shamefully, re-branded by the Prime Minister as the “Surrender Bill”.

The irony of this is breathtaking. Nor is it true.

What is true is that a hard Brexit will most surely “surrender” advantages the UK has worked so hard to gain – over very many years.

This week, Westminster has flexed its muscles, and done what every democratic Parliament has a duty to do: call the Government to account.

Over recent days, some Conservative Members have put their conscience above all else – at tremendous personal cost.

It is time for others – of all Parties – to dig deep into their souls and answer one question: am I here to serve the interests of my Party, or the wellbeing of my country?

Upon their answer, all our futures depend.