Grey days

John Major: The Autobiography

John Major <em>HarperCollins, 774pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0002570041

In a way, the photograph on the dust jacket says it all. There is John Major - new glasses, serious expression, hand carefully cupped to chin - plainly trying to look like the authoritative figure he never was. Never mind that, next to Sir Alec Douglas-Home (who lasted only a year), he happens to be the least significant occupant of No 10 this century: he is still going to present his life story as if he had been a mover and shaker of national events.

He was never anything of the sort. His prime ministership originated in two simple negative factors - that he was not Margaret Thatcher and that, unlike Michael Heseltine, he did not carry the guilt of her assassination - and his six-and-a-half years in Downing Street represented a constant struggle to persuade other people that he deserved to be there. (In his more modest moments he sometimes appeared to have trouble in convincing even himself that his arrival had been something more than a fluke.)

That said, however, he has contrived to write an engaging enough book. Although he pays generous tribute in his acknowledgements to his amanuensis, Julian Glover, the tone of voice throughout is essentially his own. When he writes of himself as an 18 year old on the day of his father's death in 1962, he cannot resist adding the banal comment: "Life would not be the same, but there was much to do" - and one can almost hear in the background that braying "Oh yes, oh yes" with which he used to accompany his more trite observations as prime minister. This autobiography may be only a penny-plain package but at least it is not wrapped in anyone else's tuppence-coloured ribbon.

It is also, for an aspirant elder statesman, remarkably honest and candid. From the moment in 1959 that he joined the Young Conservatives in Brixton, Major obviously found his fulfilment in working for the Tory party, and all too transparently the most dismaying discovery he made in the latter part of his career was that his own feelings of gratitude and affection towards it were not reciprocated. There is no denying that he still feels the hurt of the treatment he received.

In a sense, he started off being spoilt. Elected to parliament only in 1979 - compared with Michael Heseltine's 1966 or Ken Clarke's 1970 - he succeeded in becoming prime minister and leader of his party in just over 11 years (a record unequalled in postwar politics). The awkward factor, and source of most of his later troubles, was that he owed it all to Margaret Thatcher - a baleful presence throughout his narrative. Understandably he does his very best to assert his independence, even to the point once or twice of letting his slip show (as when he reveals that on the evening of 21 November 1990, when he reluctantly backed her for the next round of the leadership contest, he took the precaution of signing his own nomination papers as well - both to be taken to London by the ubiquitous Jeffrey Archer's chauffeur). But nothing can quite demolish our knowledge that she was his creator and he was her creature, the latest and luckiest of her favourites who just happened to be standing in the right place at the right time when the music stopped.

At least his narrative illuminates one dark corner. Their break did not really come over Europe at all. He was never forgiven from the moment he admitted Heseltine to his cabinet and almost simultaneously gave his support to the scrapping of the poll tax (a pledge that Heseltine skilfully wrested out of him during the leadership election). Both were viewed as acts of lese-majeste, proving what the displaced empress probably should have realised long before: that the boy from Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, and the grocer's daughter from Grantham were born on different sides of the ideological blanket.

Major was never remotely a "conviction politician"; he was essentially a manager and a fixer, and the warm tribute paid in his book to John Wakeham should come as no surprise to anyone, though the statement that, as chief whip, "he [Wakeham] played Mrs Thatcher like a master fisherman landing a prized salmon" may, one suspects, be the product more of envy than of admiration. For the plain truth is that, once he became prime minister, Major himself proved useless at dealing with Mrs T - and if that familiar spoken tone of peevish petulance occasionally creeps into his prose style it almost invariably occurs when he is discussing her or her acolytes.

On the other hand - except in his moods of private exasperation (so faithfully and inconveniently recorded by his political secretary, Judith Chaplin) - he always seemed to lack the courage to go directly to war with her in the way that, to do her justice, she never hesitated to do with Ted Heath. His peace-loving tendencies did him no good at all. His premiership was ruthlessly hobbled by his predecessor from the outset. At least this autobiography betrays signs that its author now knows that and also displays the occasional premonition that he is aware of the political fate (orchestrated by his predecessor and successor in the Tory leadership) that currently surrounds his reputation. Particularly at the beginning and the end there is a distinct nunc dimittis flavour to what he has to say, and who can be surprised? He may have enjoyed being prime minister - he rather tends to go on about what "a privilege" it was - but he clearly never came to terms with just how beastly his own party could be.

Much the better part of this overlong book concerns the battles he fought with his own party, down to and including the final throw of the dice over his vacating of the leadership in the summer of 1995. It somehow cannot help seeming appropriate that even there he should have been disappointed. He had hoped for 230 votes and got 218 - a figure he, quite unselfconsciously, writes fell "in the grey area". It is an apt phrase not just for that episode but for the whole of his period at No 10.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?