He, too, is a Prime Minister who saw a slender Commons majority – and authority – ebb away over European policy, namely the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, and Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland effectively holding the balance of power in Parliament.
The only difference now is that the Democratic Unionists do have sufficient MPs to hold Government to ransom by threatening to tear up their Parliamentary pact with the Tories, agreed in the aftermath of the 2017 election, and vote down the Budget if any Brexit deal does not honour their specific ‘red line’ demands.
Given that Brexit is far more complex than Maastricht, and that Mrs May is trying to negotiate on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom, Sir John’s sympathy was sincere when he lamented the lack of support being afforded to the PM. “I think the way she is being treated by some of her colleagues is absolutely outrageous,” he said.
A past premier whose stature has risen since he left office in 1997, Sir John rarely intervenes because he resented Margaret Thatcher undermining his own leadership. As such, it is significant that he also chose this moment to follow Gordon Brown, the last Labour premier, and urge the Government to rethink its roll-out of Universal Credit.
Just like the Archbishop of York, Sir John’s primary issue appears to be with the implementation of a welfare reform which could leave poorer people much worse off – the precise opposite of the original intention. Noting that this could trigger “the sort of problems” that the Tories endured over the poll tax, Mrs May would be wise to heed a predecessor who knows, from experience, that delaying a policy, and getting it right, is a strength rather than a weakness – and might, in time, give her some credit when it comes to votes on Brexit.