Tom Richmond: Wise Brexit counsel for Theresa May from John Major, a man who has been there before

Former premier Sir John Major.
Former premier Sir John Major.
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THE similarities between Theresa May, and John Major’s government, become ever more apparent as feuding Tories forget that no political party is bigger than the country.

Just as the Major government was held to ransom by Eurosceptics, and led to Labour winning the 1997 election by a landslide, the Brexiteers are now inflicting similar damage on Mrs May’s fragile administration.

Boris Johnson should not be Prime Minister, writes Tom Richmond.

Boris Johnson should not be Prime Minister, writes Tom Richmond.

Yet, given Mrs May shares a similar suburban outlook on life, and a mutual love of cricket, with her predecessor whose leadership was much maligned at the time, I do hope she’s seeking – and using – Sir John’s counsel. He’s the only person in the country who knows, and appreciates, what she’s going through.

This became even clearer as the Government’s work on Brexit, or any other issue for that matter, is completely overshadowed by infighting like the continuing fallout from Boris Johnson’s clumsy remarks over burkas – and how Jacob Rees-Mogg, and others, have used this to exploit Conservative divisions.

As former Tory chairman Chris Patten, the man who presided over the party’s surprise win in the 1992 election, once observed at the height of the Major government’s difficulties: “The best response to bad free speech is good free speech.”

If only the May government had heeded this wisdom when Mr Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, suggested that burka-wearing women “choose to go around looking like letter boxes” and turn up “looking like a bank robber”.

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The Tory party should have left it to Mr Johnson, and his supporters like President Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon, to defend these crass comparisons while Ministers tried to forge a mature debate about religious tolerance in multi-cultural Britain.

However the problem is that personality politics trumped the politics of pragmatism. By Mrs May weakly demanding an apology that she was never going to get, and cack-handed party chairman Brandon Lewis launching a ham-fisted disciplinary inquiry, this has become the latest cause célèbre for Brexiteers, provided Mr Johnson with the oxygen of publicity – the very thing he craves – and detracted attention away from Labour’s troubles over anti-semitism.

Then there was the self-indulgent Johnson family’s navel-gazing as the MP’s irascible father Stanley, and incorrigible sister Rachel, suggested the ex-Foreign Secretary had, in fact, not gone far enough. Imagine how unbearable they will become if Mr Johnson plots his way to the top job in politics.

And what of Mr Johnson? Only marginally better dressed than the scruffiest of scarecrows, he brought out a tray of tea to the waiting media outside his country home before retreating to write his next column for the Daily Telegraph.

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Typically, there was no mention of the row he started as he called for a cut in stamp duty to boost the housing market and, presumably, to overshadow the launch of the Government’s long-planned announcement to tackle rough sleeping.

This is no way to run a country. Yet, given the burka comments were deliberately aimed at those Tory MPs and activists who want Mrs May forced out, this is precisely what will happen if the Conservatives continue to self-destruct.

And while Mrs May is likely to spend her summer walking holiday reading the biography of legendary cricket writers E W Swanton and John Arlott, she should find time to read Andrew Adonis’s book Half In Half Out: Prime Ministers on Europe and, specifically, the aforementioned Lord Patten’s chapter on the Major government.

Described “as the cleverest of the three party leaders for whom I worked” by Lord Patten who was an aide to Edward Heath, and then a minister under Margaret Thatcher, he said he understood Europe’s other leaders and built relationships with Germany’s Helmut Kohl amongst others when negotiating Maastricht Treaty opt-outs.

“Relationships attract goodwill; they afford you the benefit of the doubt rather than the reverse,” writes Lord Patten who said the then leader “was a naturally gifted negotiator, always knowing his brief better than anyone else knew their own”.

Mrs May could do a lot worse than follow this advice when dealing with Jean Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier.

She could also talk to Sir John about how to manage a fractious Parliamentary party – the former premier’s chief whip was never as cavalier, or careless, as the current incumbent Julian Smith, the Skipton and Ripon MP.

And the PM could heed her predecessor’s recent rallying cry when Sir John warned that it would be “a betrayal of every day people” if Britain crashed out of the EU without a deal because “the people who have least are going to be hurt most”.

By 1997, voters were in despair of Tory divisions, there was a plausible alternative in Tony Blair and Sir John Major left 10 Downing Street in time to watch the cricket at The Oval.

However it is clear that he still deeply cares about his country and Theresa May would be wise to utilise the experience of a former leader whose reputation becomes more enhanced with each passing day. If not, she will be leaving the country at the mercy of either Boris Johnson – or Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk