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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.