Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – 6 November 2021

The transcript of the interview conducted by Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 6 November 2021.


Nick Robinson

Good morning to you.

Sir John Major

Good morning, Nick.

Nick Robinson

Sir John, what do you say to those listening who may be a little weary of the story? They may say, look, a mistake was made, a mistake was acknowledged, a u-turn was executed. The MP in question has now quit the House of Commons. There is nothing left to say.

Sir John Major

I really wouldn’t agree with that. A mistake certainly was made and I think rather a bad mistake. The problem is that it isn’t a mistake on its own. There have been a whole series of missteps, so I think it’s necessary to address them now in order to put them right in the future, because if it continues in the way it is now it’ll be very damaging for Parliament, for the country and certainly for the Conservative Government.

I have been a Conservative all my life Nick and if I’m concerned about how the government is behaving, I suspect lots of other people are as well. It seems to me as a lifelong Conservative that much of what they’re doing is very unconservative in its behaviour. There are many strands to this that go way beyond the Standards Committee imbroglio over the last few days. There’s a general whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ about their behaviour and I think this is cutting through to the public. It has to stop and it has to stop soon.

Nick Robinson

Now, let me put to you this specific point made by Lord Evans, now chairman of that committee on standards in public life, he said Britain could slip into being a corrupt country. Do you believe that’s a possibility?

Sir John Major

Well, it depends on your definition of corruptness. If you mean necessarily financially corrupt on a large scale, well I think we have a long way to go before we do that. Standards in public life generally, I think, and I don’t just mean in the political sphere but across the whole of public life, are as high I think, as anyone in Europe or elsewhere. But if you mean in terms of other aspects of behaviour, then I have a considerable amount of sympathy with what Lord Evans has said.

What has been happening is damaging at home and to our reputation overseas and that matters. Our reputation overseas matters to us and it should. Let me take a few illustrations, I’ll start with the Standard Commissioner’s report. I think the way the government handled that was shameful and wrong and unworthy of this, or indeed any, Government. It also had the effect of trashing the reputation of Parliament. A number of Conservative MPs rebelled and very well done them, I wish more had had the courage to do so and I suspect they will in future because they were put in a dreadful position by the Prime Minister.

But there’s a bigger point. Parliament cannot be the plaything of any Prime Minister or indeed any government. This government has done a number of things that concern me deeply. They have broken the law, I have in mind the illegal prorogation of Parliament over which I went to the Supreme Court. They have broken treaties, I have in mind the Northern Ireland protocol, they have broken their word on many occasions. The one that I find most odious was the cut to overseas aid, which was a statutory requirement and was cut long before Parliament gave permission for it. Whenever they run up against difficulties with anybody, whether it is the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission, the BBC, they react not with an understanding, not trying to placate what has gone wrong, but actually in rather a hostile fashion. That’s why I say it is profoundly unconservative and something I dislike intensely.

Nick Robinson

I want to come to some of the examples you’ve raised. I want to put to you in a second the fact that many people think you are still fighting an old battle, the battle over Brexit in what you’ve said. But before we move to those things, let me ask you specifically about this week, something you said was shameful and wrong. Do you blame the Chief Whip, do you blame the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg. And if not, who?

Sir John Major

I don’t think it’s my responsibility to apportion blame. My understanding of what happened is that the instruction came direct from the Prime Minister, that is certainly what I’m told by backbench Members of Parliament. Where the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House are certainly to blame is it is their responsibility to make sure the Prime Minister understands the mood of Parliament and plainly either they told him the mood was wrong and he brushed their concerns aside, which may have happened, or alternatively, they were not in touch with Parliament, in which case they’re certainly culpable. But I don’t know which of those options is the correct one.

Nick Robinson

We are hearing now that there is a possibility that Owen Paterson could be offered a peerage by Boris Johnson, No. 10 have neither confirmed nor denied it. How would you feel if he was?

Sir John Major

There have been some extraordinary elevations to the peerage in recent years, quite extraordinary, quite apart from the over large number of peers that have been put there. I think it would be rather extraordinary if that happens. I’m not at all sure it would be approved by the House of Lords, or by those who vet peerages.

Nick Robinson

Our political system, as you know too well as someone who had a rather small majority, gives enormous power to Prime Ministers who have a decent or a big majority. Can restoring trust in the way that you want, in the way the public seem to want as an extraordinary poll in the Daily Mail today, carried out by JL Partners where 57% of people agree with the statement ‘Britain is in danger of becoming a corrupt country’, can tackling that be entrusted to this Prime Minister?

Sir John Major

This is the Prime Minister we have and he will have to tackle it. It can start with the way he treats Parliament. I’m afraid the government with its over large majority do tend to treat Parliament with contempt and if that continues it will end badly. They bypass Parliament at will, the Speaker has expressed his frustration about that on many occasions and rightly so, but they also behave badly in other ways that are perhaps politically corrupt. They brief the press, or a part of it, well in advance of any announcements to the public. They then make announcements to the public and then at that late stage after briefing their friends in the press and the public, they then tell Parliament, which completely diminishes the role of the House of Commons. Parliament must react to that.

Parliament must make sure that the Government’s behaviour is responsible, because they have the power to do so. The Parliament at present has given the Prime Minister a very large majority, but he would be very unwise to forget that he got his extraordinary majority of 80 seats with less than 30% of the people who are entitled to vote, 29.3 or 29.7, I think is the actual figure. If he wishes to bring even the electoral system into total disrepute he has to recognise that he does not have the majority opinion at his side that the majority of 80 in the House of Commons would seem to imply, he has nothing like that and he should tread very carefully.

Nick Robinson

People listening to this will be in no doubt about your passion, no doubt I think about your anger. But I think there will be some who think this is personal animus, you lost the argument on Brexit, Boris Johnson won the argument on Brexit. And there will be plenty of people who voted leave, saying please don’t lecture us about standards, the establishment, of which they would see you as a part, tried to overturn the votes in a democracy. They tried to overturn the result of that referendum. And, yes, Boris Johnson broke the law or broke treaties. He had to do it because there was a conspiracy to overturn a democratic result in a referendum and you don’t like it?

Sir John Major

He had to break the law? That is absolute nonsense. Never in the history of British politics has a Government had to break the law and tried to justify it in the way this Government has attempted to do. I am very well aware that the extreme Brexiteers will say well there is a bitter old Remoaner. That old mantra will be repeated. And let me say it’s partly true, I am old and I’m most certainly a Remainer. But I’m not bitter – what I am is disappointed and angry at the way the Government has behaved. I’m angry about the trashing of our reputation, I’m angry because I care about the upholding of general decency by the Government and international law.

As for ‘Remoaners’, to use that sneer against half the country, half the country that voted against leaving Europe, is pretty arrogant. When you consider what is happening with Brexit, even more arrogant.

Nick Robinson

In today’s Daily Telegraph editorial, time is running out and the Government should not hold back from doing what is necessary. They are calling for, as you will well know, the use of what is in that jargon called Article 16, which means in reality suspending large parts of the Brexit agreement as part of the row between the UK Government and the EU. How would you feel if they did that?

Sir John Major

I think it would be colossally stupid to do that. To use Article 16 to suspend parts of the protocol will be absurd. This protocol is being denounced week after week by Lord Frost and the Prime Minister. Who negotiated the wretched protocol? Lord Frost and the Prime Minister. They negotiated it, they signed it, and they now wish to break it. If they do that, firstly, it will be seen as very bad faith, it will be seen as irresponsible, there will undoubtedly be severe consequences. It would add to destabilisation in Northern Ireland, it would seriously damage relationships across the whole of Ireland, North and South, and the UK. It would erode relationships between Europe and the UK, it would damage relationships between Washington and London, because Washington, the United States is very much behind the protocol.

At the moment, we are negotiating over the protocol with all the subtlety of a brick. What is happening week after week is that Lord Frost goes into the negotiations, he gives away nothing, he takes something from the European Union. He goes away, blames them for the fact that nothing at all has happened. They are preparing, I think, to trigger Article 16 after the COP meeting has ended and I think if they do, they will come to regret it because this runs alongside other things in Northern Ireland, like the possibility of the destabilisation of the power sharing executive if the DUP withdraw from it. This is a very difficult and dangerous road to go down, it’s not just a question of trade difficulties. It could – we’ve seen what’s happened in Northern Ireland before – it could become much worse. They should be very, very careful about this. This is silly politics to placate a few extreme Brexiteers, and the price will be paid by businesses, people in Northern Ireland and the reputation of the United Kingdom.

Nick Robinson

I think they would say if they were here, if Lord Frost was here, it works – the French back down on fish, the EU back down on lots of controls that were being used in Northern Ireland after Brexit, we have to, they argue, throw our weight around in order to be taken seriously and for people to listen. John Major’s nice diplomacy doesn’t get you anywhere.

Sir John Major

Well, if they think that the way of negotiating is to be a bully, then I think they will come adrift in due course, and it may be on this occasion. It’s certainly true that the European Union obeys the normal laws of diplomacy and this country wouldn’t seem to recognise them at all at the present moment. But there will come a moment when it will stop. There’s come a moment in the House of Commons in the last week when many missteps by the government have suddenly exploded into a general anger. The same thing may happen over Northern Ireland if they proceed down the route they’re going.

Nick Robinson

Now you talk about general anger, there will again be some people listening who say well, it’s a bit rich for Sir John Major to talk about sleaze, wasn’t that the thing that drove him from office in many ways, a cash for questions scandal I mentioned, arms for Iraq, Jonathan Aitken, not to mention a host of ministers who were forced to resign during your period in office. Are you really qualified to talk about this?

Sir John Major

I think that’s a perfectly fair point for you to put. We did face so called sleaze in the 1990s, it was immensely damaging, it was embarrassing, it hurt the government, it hurt Parliament. It involved a relatively small number of people who misbehaved, the worst of which was cash for questions. There was no excuse for that. A small number of MPs were paid for asking parliamentary questions, it was a form of paid lobbying, and completely unacceptable. But here’s the difference. When that happened, I set up the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life to stop it, which has been a huge success. The striking difference is this, in the 1990s I set up a committee to tackle this sort of behaviour. Over the last few days we have seen today’s government trying to defend this sort of behaviour. Sleaze is unacceptable, was unacceptable when I was there, and I suffered a great deal of pain and anguish over it. It’s as unacceptable today, and it needs to be stopped.

Nick Robinson

You have described the Prime Minister’s behaviour, the behaviour of this Government, as unconservative. Now, our votes are a private matter but do you ever have nights, do you ever have moments when you look in the mirror and think I’m not sure I can vote for this man to remain as Prime Minister?

Sir John Major

Well, I wouldn’t be, I would be voting for my local Member of Parliament. So in fact, it’s not quite as simple as that. But it will be a dilemma for many people. I mean, the Government cushions itself with this majority of 80: the 80 was partly a vote for the Conservative Party, but I fear in significant part it was a vote against the fact that the Labour Party did not seem credible to form a government. That is why I think a little humility would be entirely appropriate to the government in the present situation in which they find themselves.

Nick Robinson

Sir John Major, thank you for joining us.