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.

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

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)

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