John Major was born on 29 March 1943, the son of Tom Pascal Hubert Major-Ball, a former travelling showman. He was christened John Roy Major but only the name John is shown on his birth certificate. He used the middle name Roy until the early 1980s.
He was born at the St Helier Hospital, Carshalton. He attended primary school at Cheam Common, and then going to Rutlish Grammar School in Merton, from 1954 onwards, when he passed the eleven-plus. There he had an undistinguished education. In the 1950s, his father's garden ornaments business failed, and the family were forced to move to Brixton in 1955. He watched his first debate in the House of Commons in 1956, and attributes his political ambitions to that event.
Major left school at sixteen in 1959, with three O-levels: History, English Language, and English Literature. He would later gain three more by correspondence course in British Constitution, Mathematics and Economics. Major applied to become a bus conductor after leaving school but his application was rejected. Some accounts say this was due to his height, although other media reports claimed wrongly this was due to poor arithmetic. His first job was as a clerk in an insurance brokerage firm 'Pratt & sons' in 1959 after leaving school. Disliking this, he quit and for a time, he helped with his father's garden ornaments business with his brother, Terry Major-Ball. He also joined the Young Conservatives in Brixton at this time.
After a spell of unemployment, he started working at the London Electricity Board (where his successor as PM Tony Blair also worked when young) in 1963, and decided to undertake a correspondence course in banking. Major took up a post as an executive at Standard Chartered Bank in May 1965 and rose quickly through the ranks; he was sent to Nigeria by the bank in 1967, and nearly died after a car crash there.
He is an Associate of the Institute of Bankers.
Early political career
Major was interested in politics from an early age. Encouraged by fellow conservative Derek Stone, he started giving speeches on a soap-box in Brixton market. He stood as a candidate for Lambeth Borough Council at the age of 21 in 1964, and was unexpectedly elected in the Conservative landslide in 1968. While on the council he served as Vice-Chairman of the Housing Committee, being responsible for the building of several council housing estates. Despite moving to a ward which was easier for the Conservatives to win, he lost his seat in May 1971.
Major was an active Young Conservative and, according to his biographer Anthony Seldon brought "youthful exuberance" to the Tories in Brixton, but was often in trouble with the professional agent Marion Standing. But, again according to Seldon, the formative political influence on Major was Jean Kierans, a divorceé 13 years his elder who became his political mentor and lover. Seldon writes "She... made Major smarten his appearance, groomed him politically and made him more ambitious and worldly." Their relationship lasted from 1963 to sometime after 1968.
He stood for election to Parliament in St Pancras North in both general elections of 1974, but did not win this traditionally Labour seat. In November 1976, he was selected by Huntingdonshire Conservatives as their candidate at the next election, winning the safe seat in the 1979 general election. Following boundary changes, Major became Member of Parliament (MP) for Huntingdon in 1983 and subsequently won the seat in the 1987, 1992 and 1997 elections (his political agent in all three elections was Peter Brown). His majority in 1992 was an extraordinary 36,230 votes, the highest ever recorded. He stood down at the 2001 general election.
He was a Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1981 and an assistant whip from 1983. He was made Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in 1985 and became minister of the same department in 1986. He entered the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987, and in a surprise re-shuffle on 24 July 1989, a relatively inexperienced John Major was appointed Foreign Secretary, succeeding Geoffrey Howe. He spent only three months in that post before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer after Nigel Lawson's resignation in October 1989. Major presented only one budget (the first one to be televised) in the spring of 1990. He publicised it as a budget for savings and announced the TESSA (Tax Exempt Special Savings Account) arguing that measures were required to address the marked fall in the household savings ratio that had been apparent during the previous financial year.
When Michael Heseltine's challenge to Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the Conservative Party forced the contest to a second round and Thatcher withdrew, Major entered the contest alongside Douglas Hurd. Though he fell two votes short of the required winning margin of 187 in the second ballot Major's result was sufficient to secure immediate concessions from his rivals and he became Leader of the Conservative Party on 27 November 1990. The next day, 28 November 1990, Major was summoned to Buckingham Palace and appointed Prime Minister.
Further information: John Major's Cabinets
Major served as Prime Minister during the first Gulf War of 1991, and played a key role in persuading American president George H. W. Bush to support no-fly zones over Iraq to protect the Kurds and Shiite Muslims from Saddam Hussein's regime.
The world economy slid into recession after the long 1980s boom during Major's first year in office, though the signs of this were appearing during Thatcher's final months as Prime Minister.
John Major with US President George H.W. Bush at Camp David in 1992
Major's Conservatives were expected to lose the 1992 election to Neil Kinnock's Labour Party. Major took his campaign onto the streets, famously delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as in his Lambeth days. This "common touch" approach stood in contrast to the Labour Party's more slick campaign and it chimed with the electorate. Major won an unexpected second period in office, albeit with a small parliamentary majority of just 21 seats despite the total number of Conservative votes being more than for any other party - either before or sinceThis proved to be unmanageable, particularly after the United Kingdom's forced exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992) just five months into the new parliament. Rumours persist that the Prime Minister suffered some form of mental breakdown brought about by the stress of the ERM crisis, with some accounts suggesting that he spent part of the day hiding in a cupboard. Major himself has admitted that he came very close to stepping down from office, having prepared an unsent letter of resignation addressed to the Queen. However, then Chancellor Norman Lamont has since testified that the Prime Minister was calm throughout, although he does remain a strong critic of Major's indecision and his persistent refusal to withdraw sterling from the ERM, as billions of pounds were wasted in a futile attempt to prop up the currency's value. The release of Black Wednesday government documents that may help to shed light on actions of the Prime Minister and his government has thus far proved fruitless.
Major kept his economic team unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before requiring the resignation of Chancellor Norman Lamont, whom he replaced with Kenneth Clarke. This delay, on top of the crisis, was portrayed as demonstrating the indecisiveness that was to undermine his authority through the rest of his premiership.
The UK's forced withdrawal from the ERM was succeeded by a partial economic recovery with a new policy of flexible exchange rates, allowing lower interest rates, along with the unintended consequence of a devalued pound - increased sales of UK goods to export markets.
The Conservative Party soon fell into political infighting. Major took a moderate approach but found himself undermined by the Eurosceptic wing within the party and the Cabinet. In particular, his policy towards the European Union aroused opposition as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Although the Labour opposition supported the treaty, they were prepared to tactically oppose certain provisions in order to weaken the government. This opposition included passing an amendment that required a vote on the social chapter aspects of the treaty before it could be ratified. Several Conservative MPs voted against the Major Government and the vote was lost. Major hit back by calling another vote on the following day (23 July 1993), which he declared a vote of confidence. He won by forty votes, but the damage done to his authority in parliament lingered.
Later that day, Major gave an interview to ITN's Michael Brunson. During an unguarded moment when he thought that the microphones had been switched off, Brunson asked why he did not sack the Ministers who were conspiring against him. He replied: "Just think it through from my perspective. You are the prime minister, with a majority of eighteen... where do you think most of the poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. Do we want three more of the bastards out there? What's Lyndon B. Johnson's maxim?" Major later claimed that he had picked the number three from the air and that he was referring to "former ministers who had left the government and begun to create havoc with their anti-European activities", but many journalists immediately named the three as Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, who were three of the more prominent "Eurosceptics" within his Cabinet at the time (throughout the rest of Major's premiership the exact identity of the three would be blurred, with John Redwood's name frequently appearing in a list along with two of the others). The tape of this conversation was leaked to the Daily Mirror and widely reported, embarrassing Major. (The maxim referred to is Johnson's famous comment about J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson had once sought a way to remove Hoover from his post as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but upon realizing that the problems involved in such a plan were insurmountable, he accepted Hoover's presence philosophically, reasoning that it would be "better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in").
At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major began the "Back to Basics" campaign, which he intended to be about the economy, education, policing, and other such issues. However, it was interpreted by many (including Conservative cabinet ministers) as being about personal morality. As a result, it disastrously back-fired on him by providing an excuse for the British media to expose "sleaze" within the Conservative Party: Tim Yeo had to resign over sex scandals, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were alleged to have taken payment to ask questions in the House of Commons, and the bizarre sexual death of Stephen Milligan in February 1994 provided a curious side-show.
The former Labour MP and late Tony Banks said of Major in 1994 that "He was a fairly competent chairman of Housing [on Lambeth Council]. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking, 'What on earth is Councillor Major doing?' I can't believe he's here and sometimes I think he can't either."
John Major opened talks with the Provisional Irish Republican Army upon taking office. Yet when he declared to the House of Commons in November 1993 that "to sit down and talk with Mr. Adams and the Provisional IRA... would turn my stomach", Sinn Féin gave the media an outline of the secret talks indeed held regularly since that February. The Downing Street Declaration was issued on 15 December 1993 by Major and Reynolds, the Irish prime minister; an IRA ceasefire followed in 1994. In the House of Commons Major refused to sign-up to the first draft of the "Mitchell Principles" which resulted in the ending of the ceasefire. In March 1995, Major refused to answer the phone calls of United States President Bill Clinton, for several days, because of anger at Clinton's decision to invite Gerry Adams to the White House for Saint Patrick's Day. However, Major paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement, although it was signed after he left office.
On 22 June 1995, tired of continual threats of leadership challenges that never arose, Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and announced he would be contesting the resulting leadership election. John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales stood against him. Major won by 218 votes to Redwood's 89 (with 12 spoiled ballots, eight abstentions and two MPs not voting at all) – easily enough to win in the first round, but only three more than the target he had privately set himself. (The Conservative Party has since changed its rules to allow a simple vote of no confidence in the leader, rather than requiring a challenger to stand (this mechanism was used to remove Iain Duncan Smith from the leadership in later years).
1997 General Election defeat
His re-election as leader of the party however failed to restore his authority. Despite efforts to restore (or at least improve) the popularity of the Conservative party, Labour remained far ahead in the opinion polls as the 1997 election loomed. By December 1996, the Conservatives had actually lost their majority in the House of Commons. Major managed to survive to the end of the Parliament, but called an election on 17 March 1997 as the five-year limit for its timing approached. Major delayed the election in the hope that an improving economy would help the Conservatives win a greater number of seats, but it did not.
Few then were surprised when Major's Conservatives lost the 1997 general election to Tony Blair's "New Labour", though the immense scale of the defeat was not widely predicted: the Conservative party suffered one of the worst electoral defeats since the Great Reform Act of 1832. In the new parliament, Labour held 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, giving the Labour party a majority of 179. After the defeat commentators asked whether it would be possible for the Conservatives to overturn such a large majority in a single election. As it turned out, it would not.
John Major himself was re-elected in his constituency of Huntingdon with a majority of 18,140. However, 179 other Conservative MPs were defeated in 1997, including present and former Cabinet ministers such as Norman Lamont, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and, most importantly, Michael Portillo.
At about noon on 2 May 1997, Major officially returned his seals of office as Prime Minister to Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly before his resignation, he gave his final statement from Number Ten, in which he said "when the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage". Major then famously told the press that he intended to go with his family to The Oval to watch the cricket.
Following his resignation as Prime Minister, Major briefly became Leader of the Opposition and remained in this post until the election of William Hague as leader of the Conservative Party in June 1997. Major continued as an MP until he retired from the House of Commons in the 2001 general election, a fact he announced on the Breakfast show with David Frost.
Summary of time as Prime Minister
Major's mild-mannered style and moderate political stance made him potentially well-placed to act as a conciliatory leader of his party and to unite the disparate groups among his MPs that had come into open conflict under Margaret Thatcher. He never succeeded, however, in reconciling the relatively small group of "Euro-rebels" to his European policy, and his increasingly slim majority after 1992 gave the rebels disproportionate influence and power. Episodes such as the Maastricht Rebellion inflicted serious political damage upon him and upon the Conservative Party.
Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats during Major's term of office, once described him in the House of Commons as a "decent and honourable man". Few observers doubted that he was an honest man, or that he made sincere and sometimes successful attempts to improve life in Britain and to unite his deeply divided party. Even his supporters, however, never claimed that he was either a strong or charismatic leader, or that he possessed outstanding intellectual or political talents. By the 1997 general election Major had come to be seen as an unfashionable, ineffectual and grey figure unable to control an increasingly divided and sleaze-ridden party.
Major at Newlands Cricket Ground January 2000
Since leaving office Major has tended to take a low profile retirement, indulging his love of cricket as president of Surrey County Cricket Club. He held the position until 2002. He has been a member of Carlyle Group's European Advisory Board since 1998 and was appointed Chairman of Carlyle Europe in May 2001. He stood down in August 2004.
In March 2001, he gave the tribute to (Lord) Colin Cowdrey at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey. In 2005, he was elected to the Committee of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), historically the governing body of the sport, and still guardian of the laws of the game.
Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, Major was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry, with responsibility for legal and administrative matters.
Major's recent low-profile political career was disrupted by the revelation in September 2002 that, prior to his promotion to the Cabinet, Major had had a four-year extramarital affair with a fellow MP, Edwina Currie. Commentators were quick to refer to Major's previous "Back to Basics" platform to throw charges of hypocrisy. Max Hastings in his book Editor in 2002 also commented on Sarah Hogg, a colleague at The Daily Telegraph, "Sarah knew Major intimately, in a way none of the rest of us did".
Major had previously fought a successful libel action in 1993 against the now defunct Satirical magazine Scallywag, when he was wrongly accused of having an extramarital affair with Downing Street caterer Clare Latimer. Latimer believes that Major was initially happy to let such rumours circulate, making less believable any reports of his affair with Edwina Currie.
Latimer has claimed she was used as 'a decoy': "That man wrecked my life. I hope he’s aware of it. I find it staggering that he had had an affair and he watched me go through all that".
In February 2005, it was reported that Major and Norman Lamont held up the release of papers on Black Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act. Major denied doing so, saying that he had not heard of the request until the scheduled release date and had merely asked to look at the papers himself. The former prime minister told BBC News he and former chancellor Norman Lamont had been the victims of "whispering voices" to the press. He later publicly approved the release of the papers. On a separate occasion he stated that at the time of Black Wednesday he was ready to offer his resignation.
According to the Evening Standard Major has become a prolific after-dinner speaker. The Observer alleges that he earns £30,000 per engagement and delivers "knowledgeable insights into the global economy" .
In December 2006, Major led calls for an independent inquiry into Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq, following revelations made by Carne Ross, a former British senior diplomat, that contradict Blair's case for the invasion.
Representation in the media
During his leadership of the Conservative Party, Major was portrayed as an honest ("Honest John") but who was unable to rein in the philandering and bickering within his party. Major's appearance was noted in its greyness, his prodigious philtrum, and large glasses, all of which were exaggerated in caricatures. For example, in Spitting Image, Major's puppet was changed from a circus performer to that of a grey man who ate dinner with his wife in silence, occasionally saying "nice peas, dear". The media (particularly The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell) used the allegation by Alastair Campbell that he had observed Major tucking his shirt into his underpants to caricature him wearing his pants outside his trousers, as a pale grey echo of Superman.
Private Eye parodied Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13¾ to write The Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾, featuring "my wife Norman" and "Mr. Dr. Mawhinney" as recurring characters. The magazine still runs one-off specials of this diary (with the age updated) on occasions when Sir John is in the news, such as on the breaking of the Edwina Currie story or the publication of his autobiography. The magazine also ran a series of cartoons called 101 Uses for a John Major, in which Major was illustrated serving a number of bizarre purposes, such as a train-spotter's anorak.
Because he grew up in Brixton, the so-called "capital of the Jamaican community in London", he was regularly joked about as being Rankin' John Major by Curtis Walker and Ishmael Thomas, the hosts of an early 1990s BBC comedy programme called Paramount City . Later, he was also be depicted as "Johnny Reggae" by the cast of The Real McCoy. His Brixton roots were also used in a campaign advert during the Conservative Party's 1992 election campaign: "What can the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? It made him Prime Minister."
Major was often mocked for his nostalgic evocation of what sounded like the lost England of the 1950s. He is known to have once said:
"Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers"
The colourful former Solicitor-General for Scotland, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, no fan of Major's, once cuttingly remarked that "to describe Major as grey would be an insult to porridge".