In today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Opposition leader Ed Miliband attacked Prime Minister David Cameron: “He can’t convince European leaders, he can’t even convince his own backbenchers. He is weak abroad he is weak at home, it’s John Major over again.” But is this comparison fair to either Prime Minister?
1. Electoral success: In electoral terms, John Major was one of the most disastrous party leaders of the 20th century. He inherited close to 370 Tory MPs from Mrs Thatcher in 1990. There were only 165 by the time he resigned as leader in 1997 with the party back in Opposition. On the other hand, Major was always significantly more popular with his public, than his party was. The same cannot be said of Cameron. Major did also win the 1992 General Election outright with a majority of 21. No Tory leader, including Cameron, has done this since.
2. Weakness/European division: Major famously dithered on Black Wednesday with disastrous effects for the UK economy in 1992. The Major Government ultimately totally disintegrated over divisions over Maastricht. This hasn’t happened to the Cameron Government yet even with the divisions between his party and the Coalition Liberal Democrats.
3. Veto: Both PMs saved their necks through use of the veto. Major saved himself from backbench disquiet by using the veto to reject a socialist politician as head of the EC in 1994, only for him to be replaced by an almost identical politician who subsequently attacked Major. Cameron’s much heralded veto over further changes to the structure of the EU in 2010, turned out to be a similarly empty gesture in practice.
4. Both PMs have tended to cling onto fatally weakened Cabinet colleagues for as long as possible, ultimately to their own detriment: Norman Lamont, David Mellor, Liam Fox, Andrew Mitchell. Cameron appointed Andy Coulson, Major ennobled Lord Archer. Both leaders clearly have displayed occasional appalling judgement.
5. On balance: Major’s record, aside from the economy and initially Northern Ireland is disastrous. Cameron has only been PM for two and a half years, compared to Major’s full six and a half years. Cameron may prove luckier in his opponent Ed Miliband than Major was in Tony Blair.
There are nonetheless undoubtedly eerie similarities between David Cameron and his doomed predecessor.