Close readers of my diaries may be aware of a woman called Alison Blackshaw, who features in most volumes. She was my PA in Downing Street, and the first time I met her, the day after the 1997 election, I could tell she had just been crying. Not exactly the start you want from your PA on your first day in a new job, exhausted after months on the campaign trail.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s just that I am really sad about John Major going. He is such a nice man.’
This the man to whom we had been devoting every waking moment to the task of knocking him over – politics is a rough trade, as the saying goes, and rarely tougher than at election time – and riding into Number 10 on the back of public acclaim and approval.
In the ensuing days, weeks, months and years, Alison became an utterly indispensable member of my team. I often cite her when explaining what it means to be a civil servant. She was a diligent and loyal member of staff working at the heart of government for a Tory PM. She then became a diligent and loyal member of staff working at the heart of government for a Labour PM. I like to think she was even sadder when we left than when John Major and his team did!
My main point, though, is that whatever political strengths and qualities John Major had, he also had and has very strong qualities as a human being. People who worked for him liked and respected him. The same went for TB. I think that is a really important quality in a leader. Some leaders operate on fear, and that can be effective, but rarely in the long-term. Having people want to work for you is usually a better way of ensuring they work well for you.
Alison is long gone from Number 10, but given it is only eleven years since I left the building in the wake of Gordon Brown’s departure in 2010, to make way for David Cameron and the coalition, followed by the majority Tory government that gave us not merely austerity but the catastrophic Brexit referendum, I still know plenty of people in and around the place, and across the big departments of State.
Whereas you never had to go far to find people who said they liked working for Major, you would work through an awful lot of shoe leather before locating civil servants, military leaders, bodyguards, telephonists, cooks and bottle-washers who would say the same of Johnson. He is unlikely to be aware of this, for two main reasons. First, narcissists tend to lack emotional intelligence about the people around them, who are viewed merely as people to serve them. Second, they are professionals and unlikely to indicate their thoughts and feelings.
But, to quote a diplomat who came across Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary, ‘he was a nightmare to work with. Never read the brief. Expected everything to be done immediately, even if it contradicted what he asked for earlier. Full of blame for others, credit and glory for himself.’ To quote another one, still there , ‘I have never known morale as low as it is now. I’m not sure how long I can stomach it.’ A protection officer I met recently was fairly diplomatic, but the rolled eyes and gentle headshake told me more than enough about what it had been like being on the road with Johnson. A senior member of the military I have always stayed in touch with said it made a hard job harder when deep down you could not trust the word of your own Prime Minister; an officer in the special forces told me not long ago, ‘you have no idea how awful it is to serve a government when deep down you feel that government is doing more damage to the country than our enemies.’
Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May … you can meet plenty of public servants who will say they liked/disliked, saw as effective/ineffective; strong/weak; but only now do we have a Prime Minister for whom there really is widespread contempt. I am sure that when the living ones line up behind Johnson at the Cenotaph next Sunday, and watch as he lays the wreath on behalf of the government, they will – Tories included – feel a little ashamed that he is now our PM.
John Major gave plenty of the reasons in his remarkable interview on the Today programme yesterday. I didn’t hear it, but a text message from my partner Fiona alerted me to it. ‘I wish John Major was Prime Minister again.’
I listened to it later. Every. Bloody. Word. The truth. About a Prime Minister whose character defines the current government, to the enormous detriment of its effectiveness and of our standing in the world.
It was like listening to a grown up reading out markings on the homework of a bottom of the class child.
The arrogance. The ‘we are the masters now’ attitude. The contempt for Parliament, and the bullying of any organisation that sees itself as anything other than a cheerleader. The trashing of Parliament’s reputation as Johnson sought to make it his plaything. The contempt for the rule of law. The lying. The broken manifesto promises. The broken laws and torn up treaties. The danger to Northern Ireland posed by the game-playing on Brexit. (I sensed his contempt for unelected bureaucrat Frost almost outweighed that for Johnson.) The risk to important strategic alliances. The corruptive Lords appointments. The ‘politically corrupt’ relations with media. The claiming of mass popular support when fewer than 30percent of eligible people actually voted for them, and many of those merely because they feared a Labour government.
Oh, and then there was the whole Johnson/Owen Paterson scandal.
Major did not hide away from the damage done to his own government by sleaze, but fairly pointed out that rather than tolerate it, he set up the Nolan committee which came up with the seven principles of public life. HOOSIAL. Honesty, Openness, Objectivity, Selflessness, Integrity, Accountability, Leadership. Johnson has contempt for the lot of them. His ministers know it. What was it his fellow Etonian Kwasi Kwarteng said when asked what Johnson had ever done to promote or uphold standards in public life? ‘He got Brexit done.’
There you have it. To the Brexit brotherhood, that is all that counts. Regardless of the damage done, past, present, future.
Major, who has forgotten more about Northern Ireland than Johnson, Frost and Kwarteng will ever bother to learn, was clinical in his assessment of why the threatened Article 16 move by the government would be ‘colossally stupid,’ and very dangerous. Equally, he seems to think, as I do, that they will do it. Because the never ending arguments with the EU are a way of distracting from their many and varied failures in so many other areas. And because the Brexit brotherhood demand it. ‘Silly politics to placate a few extremists.’ Every. Bloody. Word. Truth.
I missed Keir Starmer’s interview on the Andrew Marr show this morning too. We were walking the dog. But when, from my twitter feed, texts and emails, I learned that he was still talking of ‘making Brexit work,’ without clarity about how, I decided to give it a miss, and listen to John Major’s interview once more. If you missed it, I suggest you do the same. Here is the link, fast forward 1 hour ten minutes