Back to the future: Are we re-living the Major years?

David Cornock
Parliamentary correspondent, Wales

image sourceWestern Mail
image captionJohn Major being interviewed by a youthful Western Mail reporter in Downing Street

It may be old age but I'm starting to get flashbacks to the John Major years. It was a time when, aside from the normal ups and downs of political life, the government's luck ran out and it began to be blamed for things that weren't its fault.

The then Labour leader John Smith was able to joke about the then prime minister's struggles. "The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge," he said. "It is no wonder that we live in a country where the Grand National does not start and hotels fall into the sea."

I recalled that line when the slogan behind the prime minister started to disintegrate as she croaked her way through a speech that was interrupted by a serial prankster. None of the above was her fault, any more than what Michael Fallon did with his hand 15 years ago, but politics is a brutal business. Sex scandals without any sex can cost a cabinet career.

No political party at Westminster, so far as I know, has claimed it is immune from inappropriate behaviour by its politicians but the spotlight will shine most brightly on the Conservatives as they are in power.

The prime minister will meet other party leaders on Monday to discuss ways to protect staff who work here. Mrs May has talked of a need to set up an independent, transparent grievance procedure for MPs' staff.

Protecting journalists such as my colleague Elliw Gwawr from unwanted advances by MPs will be more of a challenge and probably require a change of culture at Westminster. Elliw had bad experiences covering the National Assembly too. Presiding officer Elin Jones says the assembly has comprehensive safeguards in place but she has convened a meeting of party leaders on Tuesday to review the current arrangements.


At Westminster, Swansea West Labour MP Geraint Davies told BBC Radio Wales: "The problem we have got is a sort of endemic cultural problem that has built up over many years, it's parliament's fault to a certain extent.

"When I arrived 1997 the background was public school boys who arriving with a hierarchical view of the world alongside a system where there was no career structure, no human resources no appraisals no support for staff or even MPs.

"There needs to be a more professional approach to people's progress and a more transparent appraisals and a clarity over what is reasonable. Some of these things are clearly unreasonable. There have been advice notes sent out about behaviour and this sort of stuff, but it should be self-evident in terns of common sense. There are institutional cultural problems which need to be shaken up professionally."

Shaking up the institutional problems is a job for all political parties, despite the current focus on the Conservatives, and the outcome should be one that should last longer than any parliament or government.

In the Major years, ministers lost their jobs once they were revealed to have had extra-marital affairs after a "back to basics" briefing was misinterpreted. In the May years, an affair might get you on a "dossier" of Westminster gossip but wouldn't necessarily cost you your job. At least not yet. (The "dossier", by the way, includes some names that, as far as I know, shouldn't be on it and at least one case of mistaken ministerial identity).

John Major's days in Downing Street were made miserable by Tory splits over Europe. You don't need me to draw the parallel but delivering a successful Brexit will be a walk in the party compared to the rows over the Maastricht Treaty.

At least the Grand National ran on time this year but the parallels continue. Politicshome editor Kevin Schofield tweeted that a Tory MP had told him: "We are being led by John Major in a skirt".

Things didn't end well for Mr Major. So how does the prime minister get herself out of her current difficulties?

A cones hotline, anyone?