John Major attacks Boris Johnson (again)

John Major attacks Boris Johnson (again)
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Shock! Horror! Sir John Major has attacked Boris Johnson! In a breathlessly reported appearance on the Today programme, the former Tory PM lambasted his successor for his 'shameful' handling of the Owen Paterson row, denouncing Johnson's behaviour as 'politically corrupt' and 'damaging at home and to our reputation overseas.' Pretty strong stuff.

Or it would be, perhaps, if Major hadn't made a number of similar such comments before. In Johnson's two years in office, his predecessor has launched at least half a dozen attacks on him over Brexit, the Supreme Court prorogation, the Internal Markets Bill, foreign aid and the Afghanistan withdrawal. Among accusations levied by Major include Johnson whipping up 'fear and anger' for electoral purposes in September 2019, that he was 'shaming the nation' by his Northern Ireland policy in September 2020 and that in July the government bore 'the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain' after it reduced the international aid budget. 

Along the way of course Major also backed candidates against Johnson's Tories in the 2019 general election, teamed up with Tony Blair in an joint op-ed to attack their successor and accused Johnson of presiding over a 'wretched betrayal' of economic policy in a speech that declared 'we are no longer a great power.' All this after the former premier claimed in the 2016 referendum that the NHS would be as safe in the hands of Johnson as that of a 'pet hamster' with a 'hungry python.'

The enmity between the two men goes back to the 1990s of course; as fellow Tory Andrew Mitchell recounted in his recent autobiography. According to Mitchell, Major was so enraged by Johnson's Brussels dispatches for the Telegraph during the Maastricht debates that he sought to block him from the Tory MEP candidates' list. Mitchell, in 1993 the-then party vice chairman who secured Johnson's admission to the list, recalls being summoned by Major to his office in the Commons: 

The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming: what the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?'

It's worth bearing all this history in mind when one considers the reverential way in which Major's criticisms are heard by certain parts of the commentariat. It's worth too remembering Major's own record when he was actually in office – as opposed to 20 years into retirement. For while Major joined in the criticism of Johnson's response to Paterson's activities and was part of the lawsuit against prorogation in 2019, he was only too happy to prorogue Parliament back in March 1997 for three weeks before it was formally dissolved ahead of the election on 1st May.

At that time, he was accused by political opponents and the media at the time of doing this to prevent the 'cash-for-questions' report being published before the upcoming general election. Whether or not that was his reason for proroguing parliament, it had that effect – the report was eventually published in July 1997. It's a curious irony that some of those same outlets who castigated Major in 1997 – like the Guardian – have been among the first to report his comments today.

Moreover, despite the cuts to international aid – which Major was so quick to decry –  figures from the Department of International Development showed spending under Sir John were at their lowest point in the half century from 1970 onwards. As for the NHS, far from being devoured by private interests, it currently enjoys its highest funding levels to date, with £17.9 extra billion alone pledged since the beginning of September.

Perhaps such points are worth remembering the next time Sir John makes one of his increasingly frequent 'rare' public interventions.

Written bySteerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to or message @MrSteerpike

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