Major, John Roy

Major, John Roy
▪ 1994

      During 1993 John Major achieved the unenviable record of becoming the U.K.'s least popular prime minister in polling history. At one point only 18% of the electorate thought he was doing well in his job.

      Many of Major's problems flowed from the Conservative Party's lack of unity over the issue of a united Europe. Not only were a vociferous minority of backbench Tories in Parliament hostile to his support of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union, so also, more discreetly, were some of his own Cabinet colleagues. In an unguarded moment in July, during a conversation with a television reporter when he thought the microphones had been switched off, he applied a coarse epithet to some Tory ministers—an insult that, when it was leaked to the media, did nothing to help Major's authority. Nor was Major pleased when Lady Thatcher, his predecessor as prime minister, published her memoirs in October and accused him of being an intellectual lightweight.

      Speculation grew during the year that Major might be forced to resign before the end of 1994. However, he took a number of policy initiatives in order to strengthen his position. In August he launched "Operation Irma" to airlift five-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic and other serious casualties from the former Yugoslavia. In October he joined with Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds in launching a fresh initiative to bring peace to Northern Ireland. In November he announced his intention to take British society "back to basics" in terms of family values and respect for law and order. Having secured parliamentary approval of British ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, he also tilted his European policy so that—in tone, at least—he seemed to accept some of his critics' arguments against economic and political union.

      One part of Major's problem as prime minister was his inability to please everyone. His "back to basics" approach, like his shift on Europe, caused Thatcher to declare that he was, at last, showing his fidelity to her politics; but by the same token, some pro-Europeans became worried. In November, Thatcher's predecessor as party leader, Sir Edward Heath, voiced his opposition to Major's move to the right. As the year ended, the prime minister seemed to have won the immediate battle for survival, but doubts remained as to how long he would stay in office.

      Major was born in South London on March 29, 1943, entered Parliament in 1979, and joined the Cabinet as chief secretary to the treasury in 1987. In 1989 he was foreign secretary for three months before being named chancellor of the Exchequer. He succeeded Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in November 1990. (PETER KELLNER)

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Universalium. 2010.

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