John Harris

Journalist & Author

Why are former Conservative prime ministers so reluctant to keep quiet?

John Major’s comment on energy prices is a fine example of a long history of ex-Tory PMs shouting directions from the backseat

In 1990, Margaret Thatcher said farewell to Tory party workers and uttered one of the most famous soundbites of her career: “I shan’t be pulling the levers, but I shall be a very good backseat driver.” Entirely reasonably, this was interpreted as a statement of intent vis-a-vis her successor, John Major. And, sure enough, as he swerved from crisis to crisis, his predecessor soon revelled in yelling at him to turn this way and that, and sowed mayhem as she did.

Two decades on, Major himself has made a fascinating intervention on energy prices: the need for the Tories to display “a heart and social conscience”, and his somewhat doubtful view of his old enemy Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits crusade – altogether milder stuff, but in some senses belated revenge for the Thatcherite mischief that once made his life a nightmare. It’s also a fine example of a long history of ex-Tory PMs relaxing in the back, passing round the barley sugars and giving it the old: “LEFT! No, RIGHT! Why are you still in third gear?” And so on …

Edward Heath, 1981

It was once said that you could gauge how much trouble Thatcher was in by how many teeth were revealed by Edward Heath’s sadistic smile in the House of Commons.

He loathed her and her politics, and in a speech he gave in Manchester a week before Tory conference in 1981, the former Conservative PM decisively tore into the monetarist conviction that unemployment could be tolerated as long as inflation came down, and much more besides. “Many of us have remained silent for a long time on these matters,” he said, “perhaps for too long… The time has come to speak out.” He sketched out what amounted to an anti-Thatcher manifesto, and called for a “return to consensus politics”.

Inevitably, she was having none of it: “What great causes have ever been fought and won under the banner of ‘I stand for consensus’?” she asked, and Heath presumably got riled all over again.

Harold Macmillan, 1984

Another broadside from the anti-Thatcherite wing of Conservatism, while it lasted. The former Tory premier who became the Earl of Stockton made his maiden speech in the House of Lords at the age of 90, in the midst of the miners’ strike. “It breaks my heart to see – and I cannot interfere – what is happening in our country today: this terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser and Hitler’s armies and never gave in,” he said. “It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing.”

It was the first of a handful of such interventions, always delivered from memory, and it was met with a standing ovation. But not from Mrs T, obviously.

Margaret Thatcher, 1995

From the off, John Major’s premiership was menaced by his predecessor, but when she was hawking the second volume of her memoirs, she excelled herself. The Path To Power included an epilogue in which she held forth about how Major was doing, savaging his approach to the EU, calling the 1992 Maastricht treaty “a treaty too far”, and demanding the repatriation of European laws via “obstruction and disruption”. Given the Brussels-related ructions that were tearing the Tories apart, this was seditious enough, as part of a serialization deal, she also granted an interview with the Sunday Times, in which claimed that Britain was “moving rapidly in the wrong direction”.

When asked where all this was pointing, she mischievously said that it was “for others to take the action required” – which, as Major’s biographer Anthony Seldon later pointed out – “cast a chilling spell”.

It certainly did. All this swiftly played into the biggest crisis in Major’s troubled time as PM, when he tendered his resignation as Tory leader and did the manoeuvre known as “back me or sack me”. Four years later, he said that her behaviour had been “intolerable”, and he was being far too polite.

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