John Major’s late popularity shows that it’s better to be underrated than overrated

Just as guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major’s reputation, so embarrassment drives the downward revision of Blair’s – the embarrassment of the sucker.

Reputational overshoot cuts both ways. Giddily inflated reputations are revised downwards with vengeful enthusiasm; public lives shredded by contemporary judgments benefit from history’s guilty reassessment. It is riskier to be overrated than underrated just ask John Major and Tony Blair.

Last month Major delighted the media with a bravura performance at a press lunch in parliament. Did he regret describing Eurosceptic ministers as bastards? “It was absolutely unforgivable. My only excuse is that it was true.” He had an elegant slap for Norman Tebbit: “There’s no point in telling people to get on their bike if there’s nowhere to live when they get there.” And for the Tory right in general – “All the core vote delivers is the wooden spoon.” The substance of his speech, proposing a profits tax on energy firms, was scarcely the point. The lunch was the culmination of the restoration of his reputation.

In truth, Major’s measured and affable public appearances since leaving office are a small part of this story; it probably would have happened anyway. Major could have turned up last month and read out the cricket scores (which he doubtless had at his fingertips) and the gallery would have rushed to praise him. For the cause of the current boom in his standing is not the present but the past. Guilt – surely that is what many pundits (and voters) feel about their treatment of Major when he was prime minister.

He was a victim of the way the market for news and opinion operates. Once a public figure is judged to be inept, the easiest way for a journalist to carve out a space in his professional marketplace is to exaggerate that negative assessment. No one wants to read about “an effectual prime minister” when another piece describes him as “disastrous” and another still as “the worst in living memory”. Before long the term “hapless” is attached to everything he does, a magnet that attracts any scrap of floating negative gossip. Criticism, like praise, is self-radicalising.

The morning after losing the 1997 election, on 2 May, Major visited the Oval cricket ground to watch a county match. I was playing. Despite his humiliation at the polls, he visited both dressing rooms, chatting courteously with all of us. He looked shattered but also relieved, even oddly assured.

At that exact moment, Tony Blair was en route to Buckingham Palace amid crazed enthusiasm. This was a following breeze that could propel almost anyone. Perhaps that was the problem. Consider Blair’s position today. Just as every voguish cliché was once greeted with credulous enthusiasm, even the mention of Blair’s name inspired boos and hisses at the 2011 Labour party conference. His lucrative speech deals are mocked, the propriety of his business consultancies questioned. Blair’s few remaining allies are now mostly on the interventionist right, which is ironic, given that Blair dedicated a whole conference speech in his heyday to the idea that conservatism was inherently and irredeemably immoral.

Once again, whatever the rights and wrongs of Blair’s choices since leaving office, the real animus is deeper-seated. How did we fall for it? How did we allow ourselves to be duped, charmed and flattered? Just as guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major’s reputation, so embarrassment drives the downward revision of Blair’s – the embarrassment of the sucker. Maybe the present revision has already gone far enough and there will soon come a time when even those who never fell for Blair will feel compelled to say, “Hang on, surely even Blair doesn’t quite deserve this treatment?”

The wider point, however, is that any public figure should guard against being too highly regarded. For once, humility and shrewd strategy are aligned: try to keep your reputation just below where it might ascend if left unchecked.

Andrew Strauss, the former England cricket captain, scored ten Test hundreds in his first 30 matches, a strike rate that placed him among the game’s highest class. Yet at his peak in 2005, I remember Strauss telling me that the praise being heaped on him was “ridiculous”. By carefully undercutting the initial reputational overshoot, he avoided the subsequent criticism that he “underachieved” as a Test batsman when his stellar early form inevitably levelled off.

The same balanced self-awareness explains why the Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who wrote acclaimed books on Afghanistan and Iraq, is now spending much of his time talking about deeply unglamorous issues such as rural broadband. Realising he was singled out as a “rising star” as soon as he entered the House – a highly risky label – he is now trying to avoid an overexcitable rise and fall. The less I hear Stewart quoted unnecessarily, the more seriously I rate his long-term prospects.

Bob Dylan was called a prophet, a revolutionary, a hero to the oppressed and the voice of generation. His response? “I’m just a song and dance man.” Graham Greene drew a distinction between his fully fledged novels and mere “entertainments”, which he did not want to be judged by literary standards. In downgrading them himself, Greene removed the opportunity for critics to do so.

You will have spotted the central difference between politicians and other public figures. Where athletes and entertainers achieve popularity by default, as a by-product of being good at something else, popularity is hard-wired into the structure of professional politics.

How, then, can a politician avoid reputational overshoot while remaining good at his job? Perhaps the answer is to distinguish between two kinds of popularity: the necessary and the self-indulgent. A politician who wants to be rated over the long term should seek just enough popularity to provide power and a mandate – but no more than that.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune “(Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major's reputation. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.