House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION COMMITTEE
Tuesday 10 November 2009
SIR JOHN MAJOR KG CH ACIB
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Public Administration Committee
Dr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger
Mr Gordon Prentice
Mr Charles Walker
Witness: Sir John Major KG CH ACIB, gave evidence.
Q152 Chairman: We will make a start and extend a very warm welcome to Sir John Major. It is very kind of you to come and give evidence to us. You have on the two previous occasions we have asked you come and given evidence to us which we appreciate very much indeed. We particularly wanted you to come for this inquiry because we have had no one in front of us who has formed a government, although we have been talking about issues related to that, and I think we would like the perspective that you bring to it. We were particularly taken by an article that you and Douglas Hurd wrote in The Times back in June, where you said some rather exciting things and called for what you described as a "more adventurous experiment", so we want to hear about this. I think you are going to say something by way of introduction?
Sir John Major: Thank you, Chairman, thank you for inviting me. Very briefly, I would like to say a few words before answering the Committee's questions, simply perhaps to put in context what I may say in answer to your questions later. I spent 22 years in the Commons and latterly another eight years observing it from outside, and if I may say so I am pretty dismayed at the disregard in which politics is held today and the way in which politics often seems to malfunction. I think this can be put right and I think it needs to be put right. Part of the remedy is reforms to make the Commons more efficient and better regarded. I think, for example, it would benefit from a wider and more experienced membership. I think we need to make the Commons more attractive by offering an alternative career structure to simply being a minister. I think for far too many members at the moment, backbench life, particularly in opposition, can be fairly fruitless and hardly uses their talents. Our system also throws up freakish government majorities which bear very little relationship to the voting pattern of the electorate at large. I think to address these over-mighty governments, Parliament needs more weapons to challenge the executive, most obviously I think through the select committee system. I think there are other reforms which are needed. In my view, the Commons has too many members, certainly the Government has too many ministers, the payroll vote is too dominant and Standing Orders are often too restrictive. I think this inquiry is very important. Outside Members are only one part of the kaleidoscope of necessary reform but I think the right new Members can inject experience and wisdom to government; but of course if we can widen the experience, quality and talent of future intakes in the Commons, we of course will need fewer external ministers of any sort. I think with that very broad introduction, Chairman, I am more than happy to turn to the Committee's questions.
Q153 Chairman: Thank you very much. There is enough there to get our teeth into. When we had Jonathan Powell in front of us the other day, who ran of course Number 10 under Tony Blair, he said, "In Europe, in pretty much all continental Europe, and the US, your gene pool from which you can choose is the entire country to be ministers, whereas here we have 300-odd MPs on the government benches from which you can choose." Everyone who has spoken to us has spoken of this diminishing gene pool as a constraint in government-forming. Did you find that when you were making a government?
Sir John Major: I did. I think it is not just the gene pool in the Commons, but the longer the government's life exists, the more people have passed through being a minister, are no longer a minister, are unlikely to come back and the gene pool correspondingly reduces. When you have been there for 18 years or perhaps even 13 years, the number of people in the Commons who have passed through ministerial experience is significant, and the number of people available for the Prime Minister to select future ministers is correspondingly reduced. So I think there are the two aspects. Plainly, it would be desirable if we had a wider and more experienced intake into Parliament as a whole and specifically into the Commons, but also there is the secondary problem that with long-lived governments the gene pool automatically shrinks.
Q154 Chairman: So presumably you feel well disposed towards Gordon Brown's experiment of a government of all the talents?
Sir John Major: I do, yes, I do. I think the idea of bringing in some people from outside is a very attractive idea. I do not think it should be over-done, and plainly some of those brought in are going to be a success, have been a success I think, and others perhaps less so, but that is true of all ministers and all political careers. So I have no objection to it, I think it is the right thing to do and I can quite see after many years in government why the Prime Minister is attracted to bringing people in. I think that is the right thing to do although it does raise some obvious questions of accountability and other matters which I have no doubt we will come to.
Q155 Chairman: As Prime Minister, is not your self-interest to get as many people as possible on the payroll, because that is the basic control mechanism of government, is it not?
Sir John Major: Well, it ought not to be. The payroll is too big and ought to be reduced. I think there are some fairly evident reforms which could be made to Standing Orders, should be made to Standing Orders, which will enable the payroll vote to be significantly reduced. Let me offer you several thoughts about that. Firstly, I see no reason whatsoever why we should not change Standing Orders in the Lords and Standing Orders in the Commons so that senior ministers may appear in both Houses, speak in both Houses, answer questions in both Houses, but only vote in the House to which they are a member. If you did that you would automatically diminish the number of duplicated ministers which are at present necessary to make sure that both Houses have a proper representation. It is fairly insulting in some ways to the House of Lords to have a Cabinet minister, or even a minister of state, in the Commons who actually is responsible for legislation pass on a second-hand brief to a junior minister in the Lords who then has to address the Lords, having mugged it up the night before he makes his speech. I do not think that is good government. If you made that reform you could significantly reduce the number of junior ministers, I am not quite sure how much but I think you could certainly reduce the overall size of government by between a quarter and a third. The second change I think which is necessary to diminish the payroll vote, the size of which is a constitutional outrage, would be to restrict parliamentary private secretaries to senior ministers and not have a parliamentary private secretary to every minister, whatever his responsibilities however senior or however lowly. Personally, I would restrict PPSs to Cabinet ministers. I think if you did that, you could significantly reduce the size of the payroll vote. In terms of democratic accountability in the Commons, I think that would be very attractive. The counterpoint is, if you are doing that, I do think you have to open alternative opportunities for Members and an alternative career path for Members, and I think there are ways in which you can do that.
Q156 Chairman: Finally on one of those points, if you simply reduce the number of Members of Parliament, which is what the Conservative proposal is at the moment, that would make the problem worse rather than better, would it not, because you would have diminished the gene pool even further and the balance between the payroll and the rest of the numbers would be even worse?
Sir John Major: That rather depends on how much you reduce the payroll. The overall size of the Commons has drifted upwards over recent years with each successive Boundary Commission - I think it is too high at the moment - and if you did reduce the size of the Commons, maybe you would attract a higher quality of future aspirants to be there. You are quite right, of course, if you diminish the size of the Commons and do not reduce the size of the Government, then you alter that equation. At the moment, in a government party broadly you have a 1:4 chance of being a minister at any time, and that is much too high a proportion, I think, not least because it diminishes the accountability of the Government to the Commons for precisely the reason you raise, the sheer size of the payroll vote.
Chairman: I am sure we will come back to that.
Q157 Mr Prentice: My first question I suppose is, did you always appoint ministers on merit or were there other considerations?
Sir John Major: There were other considerations. Of course merit was the first consideration but there were other considerations as well, and they may vary dependent upon the size of the majority you have. I had, as you will well recall, Gordon, a very tiny majority, at times effectively we were a minority government, and it was necessary to keep a political balance within the party, so I had to look at a political balance as well as straightforward merit. To take matters to absurdity, you might on pure merit have had all the merit on one particular philosophical part of your party but it would have been absurd to appoint every minister from that part; you simply could not have carried on a government that way. So merit is the first point but I think you need a proper balance in Parliament of ministers as well.
Q158 Mr Prentice: But all this talk about appointing on competence is just moonshine, is it not, because the reality of politics meant that you and your predecessors would very often appoint 'one of us', a political soul mate rather than a member of the opposition in the party, one of the "bastards", to quote.
Sir John Major: Hardly a soul mate.
Q159 Mr Prentice: I am just wondering if the politics of it all crowds out and makes redundant this noble idea of bringing into government people who stand head and shoulders above their colleagues and are super-competent.
Sir John Major: I do not think it is quite as clear cut as that. Self-evidently, for the reason you yourself alluded to, I did not appoint solely people who were entirely philosophically congenial; my life might have been a good deal easier had I chosen to do so but I chose to strike a wider balance. I think your point would be absolutely right if you over-did the number of external appointments, but I think it is desirable to bring in people who have a particular talent to government where there is a shortfall in that talent in the Commons. If you compare the House of Commons today with, say, 30, 40 years ago, where are the businessmen, the farmers, the soldiers? There is a different structure. Politics has changed, not just in one party but in all parties, it has changed, and I do not disparage the role of someone who is a professional politician at all, it is the question of whether you have the right mixture in the House of Commons. That is why I am keen to see a wider and sometimes more experienced spread of intake. Sometimes it is desirable to bring in people who have a particular gift to government, either in the Commons, which is much more difficult to do, or indeed in the Lords in the way the present Prime Minister has done.
Mr Prentice: The present Prime Minister brought in Alan Sugar who has huge business experience, and we read in the Telegraph yesterday, that Alan Sugar might quit as Enterprise Tsar. He said, "Too much negative stuff is really unhelpful. I may decide it is simply not worth it when you are giving your time free of charge for no agenda. What am I going to get out of it?"
Mr Walker: A peerage.
Q160 Mr Prentice: Then he goes on to say, "I have not got my titles for the sake of a badge." He obviously feels he can contribute something. But there is a man who is obviously wounded by the criticism and that is an issue, is it not? You would bring people into politics and they just cannot take it.
Sir John Major: There are many people who have come into politics who I think have made a significant contribution. If you look at the present Government, without going further back, I would argue Lord Darzi was a success, I think I would argue that Lord Adonis is a success - was in education, is at transport. I think Lord Davies, Mervyn Davies, is proving to be a success. So these are people with a particular experience who I think have enhanced the ability of government to deal with problems. Of course you cannot take that too far and, as I said earlier, some appointments will be more successful than others, and everyone will have their own judgments about that. I would rate those three a particular success and I think there are others. Those who are not a success perhaps will leave government fairly speedily, others will not. Personally, I would change the system of appointment. If I were appointing Mr X to the House of Lords to be a minister, I would like a constitutional change, if we put him in the Lords, which gave him a peerage for the period of that Parliament and then when he left government that peerage would fall away in terms of legislation. He could keep the title, I have no objection to him continuing to be Lord X, but I think he would lose his legislative position when he left government. If the party to whom he adhered wished to put him back in the House of Lords, then let them later put him on a working peers list. I have no objection to that, but I think the automaticity of coming into the Lords, becoming a peer, serving for five minutes and retaining membership of the House of Lords is something I would look at and change.
Q161 Chairman: The proposal you made in The Times though, with Douglas Hurd, was even more radical, was it not? It was that some such person would not even need to be in the Lords at all, you said there should be a percentage of these people who can just be appointed?
Sir John Major: We advocated that as well. We set out a series of things. We were thinking more of the Commons than the Lords when we actually wrote that. In terms of the Lords, if you wish to put people in, you can, and providing you do not offer them the peerage for life then I think it is proper to give them the peerage for the period in which they serve in the Government and let them be fully-fledged members of the House of Lords during their period there. What we were looking at was there might be very exceptional circumstances in the Commons where, because of the particular skill, the Commons would require that particular minister to be within the House of Commons so they are directly answerable to the House of Commons, though under my proposals of course even if they were in the Lords they could be brought to the Commons to be answerable. That was where we were being a little more radical and trailing our coat and suggesting there might be a small number of unelected ministers who would serve also in the Commons for the period of their time in government. If you did that of course, let us pre-suppose the Prime Minister of the day brought in five unelected people - no, three, five is perhaps over-doing it I think - three unelected people to serve in the Commons as ministers, I think the inevitable consequence of that is there would have to be three unelected additions to the Opposition as well as to the governing party, but that is not our preferred option. But we do think that is something which conceivably should be open to a Prime Minister.
Q162 Mr Walker: I was going to call you "Prime Minister". I almost stood when you came in. Sir John, it does really sound like serious consideration should be given to a separation of powers. I am a legislator, I have no real management ability, I think the idea of me running a department is probably quite laughable, or even part of a department. Why can we not start biting the bullet on this and perhaps accept we need to have a debate about the separation of powers, so you have people in Parliament who represent their constituents, scrutinise government and hold it to account, and then we have people drawn from the best and the brightest out there being ministers, or whatever you want to call them, and when they cease being a minister they retire back to public life with no title, just the pleasure of having served their country?
Sir John Major: Well, you could do that. Constitutionally it would be an enormous change and I think it would lose something, because although today we are concentrating on bringing in experience to help politics, I do not think people should under-estimate the importance of a political skill in running a huge department and presenting a policy. I think I would argue someone who is a professional politician, who has served in the House of Commons and learned the arts of politics, is often going to present policy far more effectively than somebody who has just been brought in from outside. I see the argument for the separation of powers, it is there, but it is not a route down which I would myself wish to go, I think it is too big a constitutional change and I would not do that. Although it is very fashionable these days to disparage politics and politicians, I think it would be a great loss were we to lose the ability of people going through the political system serving as ministers directly and representing policy. I also think it would be slightly less democratic, noticeably less democratic, than the system we have at present.
Q163 Mr Walker: You mention the role of the backbencher. Being called a backbencher now is a term of derision and I do not think it should be a term of derision. You said there should be a career structure for backbenchers which is more robust than the one we currently have in place. We currently have select committees, you can be chairman of standing committees, but what other additions could we make to the House which would allow someone to have a rewarding career as a parliamentarian as opposed to being judged on whether or not they held ministerial office?
Sir John Major: If I may say something for the moment in defence of backbenchers. A really good backbencher is often the grit in the oyster; Tam Dalyell perhaps. He would often hold eccentric views but he was an extraordinarily able and good backbencher and suddenly apt to fire at ministers the most devastating question of all, and that is, "Why?" I remember him standing up in the House of Commons in response to an answer from a minister and just saying, "Why?" and it was brilliant. So I do not think one should permit people to disparage the role of the backbencher, I think it is extremely important, and there are people who philosophically wish to be backbenchers, represent their constituents, argue their case, do not have ambition, do not believe they have a field marshal's baton in their knapsack, and it is very important that Parliament has a considerable number of them. So I support the role of the backbencher. What I do think we ought to do, the point I was getting at, and it is not a million miles away from this Select Committee, if you look at select committees, they were an innovation introduced by Norman St John-Stevas 30-odd years ago, I think they have been pretty successful, I think they could be more successful and I return to my concern about holding the government to account. In terms of a career structure, the sort of thing I have in mind and no doubt this Committee or at least its Chairman would agree with it, I think we should change the status of select committees. I would pay select committee chairmen at the rate of a senior minister, a minister of state at least, and the Chairman of the Accounts Committee perhaps at the rate of a Cabinet minister. I would pay the vice-chairman of the committee as well. I do not know whether there are allowances now for committee members but I would give them. I would give them more work to do. I would have them elected by the House, not appointed by the usual channels. I think that would be a significant improvement. So paid, elected by the usual channels to give them more independence than they have previously had. Then I would look at the work they do. One thing which I think could be done and should be done is quite a constitutional change but well worthwhile. At the moment, governments produce a one year parliamentary programme but they have a five-year manifesto. I see no reason why governments could not announce a parliamentary programme which spread over a good deal longer than a year so that Green Papers could be produced on the proposed legislation, the select committees would take on the role of examining those Green Papers, taking public evidence and advising upon that legislation, before the legislation comes to be drafted. I think if you did that, you would get much better legislation. I think it would be quite a rewarding thing to do. Bring in the experts on health and cross-examine them, bring in the chief constables and examine them on the annual Criminal Justice Bill. I think that would be a good idea for this reason: too often in the last few years large parts of Bills have either not been debated or have been inadequately debated, and you see a few years down the road that those parts of the Bills have often not been brought into operation and then in the subsequent Bill they are quietly repealed without ever having been brought into operation. That is very amateurish. That is not the way to run a whelk stall, let alone one of the oldest parliaments in the world. If you looked at your legislation more on a parliamentary basis than on an annual basis and gave the select committees this additional role, it would be a good deal more work for the select committees, and I am entirely content for them to be paid for the extra work they do because I think the reward would be better legislation, and if you want Parliament to be effective, efficient and well regarded, it needs to produce legislation which works and is seen to be effective and is seen to be properly democratically examined. I am not personally convinced at the moment it is. So those are the sort of changes I have in mind.
Q164 Mr Walker: So would you agree that we need people who are ambitious for Parliament, not just ambitious to get ahead in the executive, but in the way you are ambitious for Parliament, people who come here - able, bright people, far brighter than I am - who are ambitious for Parliament and want to make their mark within Parliament?
Sir John Major: Emphatically, I would, yes. I do think you need people ambitious for Parliament. If you have a Parliament in which every member has as his primary ambition to be Prime Minister or a minister, you do not have a Parliament which will hold the government to account. You need people of an independent strand of mind. One of the advantages of bringing in older people is that the career structure through the select committees would be particularly attractive, and they would be particularly experienced, though of course that raises wider questions of getting them selected and adopted as we all understand, but if they were there I think it would be better for Parliament and I think we should encourage that. In terms of standing committees, you might look at similar reforms but I think it is less evident how you do that than it is with select committees.
Q165 Paul Flynn: Very good to see you back here, John.
Sir John Major: Thank you, Paul.
Q166 Paul Flynn: One of your early ambitions as Prime Minister was a very laudable one, which was to take the yah-boo out of Prime Minister's Questions. You suggested this and, in a spirit of co-operation, in your first fortnight as Prime Minister I had the luck to have a Question drawn and I sent every word I was going to ask in that Question, stripped of adjectives and on a serious subject, to 10 Downing Street, and when I asked the Question your reply was described in a Times editorial as a "typical Civil Service brief with a party political sting in the tale". I had not given my "yah" but you gave your "boo". Within a month, Prime Minister Questions had gone back to what it always was. Is it not likely, that because the system is favourable to the Prime Minister of the day and the party political of the day, it is very, very difficult to institute reforms particularly when they are sabotaged by what in this case was the person who started it all?
Sir John Major: Well, one man's boo is another man's cheer. Surprisingly, Paul, I do not remember that incident 19 years on; I am sorry not to have an absolute total recollection of it. I am surprised if I responded in that way because I recall for some months both Neil Kinnock and I at the outset tried to take some of the heat out of Prime Minister's Questions. He did too and I have always paid great credit to him for doing that. Eventually, as you say, the system forced us back into it. It was decreed by those who write about these things that it was becoming deathly boring, the backbenchers became restive, they needed a little blood at Prime Minister's Question Time, and so things did drift back. Prime Minister's Questions is a thing apart. I think all of us who have been in Parliament know it is a unique few minutes each week and the rest of Parliament is not generally like Prime Minister's Questions, for which in the interests of good government I think most of us would give a hearty cheer and not a boo. So if I did not treat your question with the importance it deserved, I offer you an apology 19 years later, but I cannot entirely remember the incident.
Q167 Paul Flynn: One of the things that many of us find distressing about the political reality of life today is this subservience of governments and oppositions particularly to the red top daily newspapers. You had your problems with The Sun, have you been sickened in the last 24 hours by The Sun's attack on the Prime Minister?
Sir John Major: I did not particularly have my problems with The Sun, I had my problems with everybody! Let us not understate this. You may or may not accept this, but some time ago I had the self-denying ordinance that I no longer buy the morning newspapers, so I do not really feel in a position to comment on them.
Q168 Paul Flynn: You are happy about what I can only perceive as the press deteriorating? I can recall the editor of The Sun threatening to dump something on your desk at one time.
Sir John Major: Yes, I read about that, I do not ever recall it happening but I have read about that. The press exist and there is nothing whatever you can do about it. I advise everyone to understand that very early in their political career. There is not a great deal you can do about it, just concentrate on what needs to be done and get on. I am not sure I always handled that extremely well, probably I did not, but that is ancient history, and with experience perhaps comes a wisdom about it. I just advise people to carry on doing what they think is right. Speaking about what is right, they may in the short term have an extremely difficult time of it, but I think over a period if you stick to what it is you believe and continue to advocate it, even if people disagree with it, they will admire you for the way you stick to what you say. You and I can both think of parliamentary mavericks who have done exactly that over the last few years and been very valuable.
Q169 Paul Flynn: Why did you not follow your own advice about getting talented and experienced people in the Lords by going into the Lords yourself?
Sir John Major: I have never ruled that out but I think it is a matter of personal preference. I think if you are going to go in the Lords, for me I thought, "Am I going to be able to make a significant contribution and be there as frequently as I would wish." The truth is, there were so many things I did outside the House of Lords that I wished to do. In politics, most of the rest of your life is extinguished if you become a senior minister, that was my fate. I am very proud to have done the job but that was my fate for a very long time and when I finished with politics I thought a sabbatical from it was a very good idea, and I have continued to take the sabbatical. At the moment, for example, I am abroad between five and six months of the year. Very useful, because it gives me a perspective of this country from the Far East, from Africa, from Latin America, from America, from Eastern Europe, but if you are abroad five months of the year, I am not entirely sure you are going to make the contribution to the House of Lords that you would wish.
Paul Flynn: Thank you very much.
Q170 Paul Rowen: Sir John, you had five Cabinet reshuffles in your seven years as Prime Minister, what would it be like under your system and how do you avoid having that number of reshuffles?
Sir John Major: I think there were too many reshuffles. We were passing through a period in probably the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s, in which an annual reshuffle became an event rather like Christmas and Easter. I think in some ways the present Government have been wise to leave ministers in place in many cases for longer. Certain senior ministers have served in positions for a very long time and I think that is attractive. It is not universally true, the number of Defence Ministers we have had and Prisons Ministers we have had, have been far more than is wise I think over recent years, but in other positions ministers have served longer. So I think the implicit criticism in your question is justified. I do not think you should automatically assume there is going to be an annual reshuffle and, where you have someone who is good at the job, it is more in the interests of good government to let them continue to do that job than to go through the old maxim of "Onward and upward, this minister is talented." So fewer reshuffles would probably lead to ministers more in command of their departments and better legislation. I think that is right.
Q171 Paul Rowen: Is not part of the reason you had so many reshuffles and we have had so many in the last couple of years is events, which you do not control?
Sir John Major: I have observed that. I remember not being in control of events. Yes, it is part of the reason, but it is not the only reason. There was a tendency to have an annual reshuffle. Events are going to be the same whether X is the minister or Y is the minister. The reshuffle may be brought about because the event had wrecked X's capacity to continue, that of course may be the case and you may need a mini-reshuffle in that department, but it does not have to be more general.
Q172 Paul Rowen: Do not Prime Ministers use the reshuffle as a way of hanging on to power? Certainly Tony Blair in his last few months reshuffled twice. Is that not one of the tactics which you as a Prime Minister used?
Sir John Major: No, actually it is not. No, it certainly was not. I am not sure what Tony Blair did or how his reshuffle would have helped him. It seemed to me he had a fairly secure majority, so he certainly was not minded to ----
Q173 Paul Rowen: There were the Brownites and the Blairs and the people who were baying for his blood.
Sir John Major: I am shocked that you suggest there was a difference between the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor. I did not observe it at close quarters and I think I would prefer not to comment on it.
Q174 Paul Rowen: Your majority, as you said earlier, was very small, given the proposals you have actually put forward in the article in The Times, fewer ministers, less power of patronage, how would you in that circumstance have been able to command a majority to get your programme through?
Sir John Major: It is always difficult if you have a small majority and it perhaps would have been marginally more difficult if we had had a lower payroll vote, it probably would, but the important point is not whether it is convenient for any Prime Minister or any government but whether it is right for Parliament to have a better democratic structure. I think it is. I can speak now, having been through the system and observed it from outside. Whether I would have taken that view at the time I was in power is a more questionable point, I cannot go back and tell you, but if I now look at what Charles Walker called the interests of Parliament, then I think it is the right thing for Parliament to do in the future.
Q175 Paul Rowen: Finally, Sir John, how do we restore public confidence in politics?
Sir John Major: When there are great crises there is a huge clamour, but as those crises begin to be solved and as things begin to be put right, I think you do see confidence rising in Parliament, so it is important that that happens. If the crisis deepens and worsens and spirals out of control, then that confidence does not reappear. But the first thing is not gimmicks, I do not think you can restore the status of Parliament with gimmicks. I do think you can restore it with solid, sensible policy, and the proposals I have made this morning are because I believe they would contribute to solid, sensible policy and I think you need to see that over a period of years. I think if you did, it would have its impact on public perceptions.
Q176 Chairman: Sir John, you had an interesting phrase, you said, "In this age of freakish government majorities".
Sir John Major: Yes.
Q177 Chairman: You did not have a freakish government majority, although you had some freaks behind you as I remember, but is not the remedy for that to think about the cause of the freakishness rather than to deal with some of the other things?
Sir John Major: Well, it is a remedy. I do not think the freakish majority takes away from any of the other proposals I would make, which are made more pertinent by the freakish majority but which I think are desirable in themselves. What I meant by freakish majority is that probably the 1979 result reflected the overall vote in a first-past-the-post system; 1983 did not; 1987 did not; actually 1992 did not because on the basis of the plurality of votes in 1992 the then Conservative Government should have had a majority of 70 and not 21. We did of course have a majority of 21 with rather more than 21 who were dissatisfied with many of our policies, so we were a minority government on some issues even before the majority began to fall. Then in 1997 you had a freakish result again. It is odd, and people tend not to remember it, but in 1987 or 1983 - I forget which - the Labour Party got 27 % of the vote and 240-odd seats, in 1997 the Conservatives got between 31 and 32 %, 3 or 4 % more votes, but 70 fewer seats. That is what I meant by freakish majorities. At the last election, with a vote percentage which was, I do not know, 35, 36 %, a very significant working majority was again delivered to the government of the day. I think the problem lies essentially in the remit given to the Boundary Commissions which are still producing distorted results. That is a matter which Parliament can put right. You could look at the voting system but that has other disadvantages if you move to proportional representation. Proportional representation might be seen as more democratic and fair in terms of a direct number of members for the proportion of the votes cast, but I think it does have other disadvantages in producing perpetual coalition or minority governments. So I would not go down that route, but I do think you need to look at the maldisposition of the present electoral system in terms of the relative size of constituencies.
Q178 Chairman: You have been quite radical in much of what you are saying to us, I am trying to entice you to be radical on this one too. As you well know, if you go back to the post-war period, the two major parties were getting over 90 % of the vote between them, now that is down to 50 % or something. The context in which politics happens has changed completely and yet we still have an electoral system which delivers the freakish results you describe. So is not the fact in the outside world the way people behave politically has just changed fundamentally and that, not the essential rights or wrongs of the system, causes us to go back and look at it?
Sir John Major: I think the world has changed and we now do have more regional parties, we have some single issue parties which have not really got into Parliament yet but could, and we have a much lower proportionate level of support for each of the two major parties. That is undoubtedly true. I think before you make any more radical changes we really ought to look at the disposition of the boundaries; I would not go beyond that at this stage.
Q179 David Heyes: One of the consequences of reducing the number of constituencies dramatically would be an increase in constituency workload for Members, and that is a massive part of the job, rightly or wrongly, for most MPs nowadays, and there is a certain routine - some may even say drudgery - about that. How does that sit with wanting to widen the pool of talent in the Commons? You make the job less attractive if you create fewer opportunities for people to go into, and at the same time you are bringing in talent from outside which might reduce the opportunity for preferment once you became a Member. There seem to be some real contradictions in here.
Sir John Major: You are quite right, there is an element of contradiction in reducing the number of Members because you increase the workload and distract them from the legislative responsibilities they have in the House of Commons; I think that is undoubtedly true. But I think you have to weigh that against the other advantages I see in a smaller House of Commons. I think you can partly deal with it if you have a proper back-up structure for Members of Parliament. I know it is not fantastically fashionable to talk about those sorts of things at this particular moment, but it is important that Members of Parliament have the right back-up structure to assist their constituents and support them in the work they are doing. I think it is unfortunate that one or two incidents have caused great difficulty with that. Yes, you are right, there is an element of contradiction. Nothing in this world is clean-cut and absolutely certain or it would have happened, so of course there are contradictions in changes and you have to take the course you think on balance is the best. The course on balance which I think is best is a smaller number of Members. I am not talking about a hugely radical reduction, I would not go below 500 for example, so you would take out 150 maybe over two or three Parliaments. That would be the sort of thing I would have in mind. So there would be an increase in constituency workload but I would hope that could significantly be compensated by the degree of back-up given to the Members who are retained in the House.
Q180 David Heyes: I wonder how we would get to this better political world you paint for us. The reality is that no Prime Minister, no government in power, is going to yield the power which exists in the payroll vote, in the number of ministerial appointments available to him; is going to yield power to potentially troublesome select committees like this one. You did not do it when you had the chance, how is it going to be brought about, how are we going to achieve it?
Sir John Major: I think the answer to that question is because there is a general recognition amongst senior politicians and among every Member of Parliament that the reputation of the House of Commons has fallen and needs to be restored. One of the methods of restoring the House of Commons would be reforms of that sort. I hope it is not too starry-eyed to imagine there are still a lot of people in the House of Commons, to borrow Charles Walker's point, who are concerned about the reputation and nature of the House of Commons. I am sure you are. I think if that is the case, then you can have these reforms and see them implemented. I think they should be implemented. If we continue as we are, if the reputation of the House of Commons continues to fall, for whatever reason, then I think that is immensely damaging to almost every aspect of our way of life, and it needs to be reversed, and I think politicians know that. If that means some uncomfortable decisions for an incoming government or a continuing government, well so be it. That is a necessary change which I think they would be prepared to accept. You are quite right, I did not do it. I have not come here to plead there was some golden age in which every democratic reform which needed to be made was made by me. I am not saying that. What I am saying is that having had the experience of being in government and then seeing it from outside, I can now see more clearly than you can from within the Westminster/Whitehall circus the sort of changes which I think need to be made and which would be well received across the country.
Q181 Julie Morgan: Sir John, going back to your discussion with the Chairman, why would you be so much against coalition governments, particularly if that reflects how the public feel and voted?
Sir John Major: Only because I think it is more difficult to take really difficult, structural decisions. One point about politics at the moment is that the decisions government has to take are more complex and more difficult than the decisions we have had to take in the past. The easy things have been done, the difficult things remain to be done. If you have a coalition government, there is always the tendency that when something is very unpopular but necessary, if you try and put it through with a minority government, the third party or fourth party, whatever it may be, which supports that government may withdraw their support and the government may collapse. I think that does mean the really serious problems which need to be tackled - and there are going to be a lot of them over the next few years - are now and will probably not be taken because the government of the day would fear they could not get them through the House of Commons. The example I gave will not appeal particularly to many members of this Committee, but I very much doubt, whether you agree with them or disagree with them, that the trade union reforms of the 1980s could have been got through a Parliament in which a government did not have a majority. I doubt in future that some of the difficult decisions which may have to be taken about retirement age and things of that sort, would necessarily get through with a minority government, and everyone in this room can think of other examples like that. So I think the advantage of the government having a majority, particularly in terms of a crisis, is that it can actually do things which are unpopular but necessary, whereas I think with a minority government that is less likely to be the case unless you have a very mature series of opposition parties who will recognise the national interest and push aside the short-term political advantage of ousting the government.
Q182 Chairman: Your Government was a coalition, was it not?
Sir John Major: I did once say that, I believe. It was an unstructured comment caught on a
microphone - not the only one of mine I recall.
Certainly I did say that once, I think it was in
Q183 Chairman: Life would have been happier with a proper coalition, would it not?
Sir John Major: I doubt it. I doubt it, because a coalition partner would have demanded policies which I might not have liked, that my party might not have liked, and another set of difficulties I could have done without.
Q184 Julie Morgan: Going back to ministerial appointments, looking back at them with your experience and if you had brought people in from outside much more widely, looking back do you have any regrets that there were some you did not bring in or you should have appointed?
Sir John Major: It is difficult to re-invent the past looking back at this distance in time. I am sure at the time there were people who would have made a contribution, either in the Lords or the Commons. Looking back at this time, it would probably be invidious to name them but I am sure the answer is, yes, there would have been. I think also today, when the policy gets so much more complex, that is more so than it was then.
Q185 Julie Morgan: What about party allegiances? Do you think that if you bring in people from outside they should be of the party allegiance of the Government?
Sir John Major: I think they should commit themselves to collective responsibility, yes. It is a mistake that we politicians make that we believe everybody is a Conservative, a member of the Labour Party, a Liberal Democratic, or whatever, but the truth is for a lot of people who have no particularly strong political allegiance, more so these days than for a very long period of time, they vote for the party which they think might be the most competent and the most amenable; they are largely apolitical. I see no reason why people like that should not come into the Lords, but I do think they would need to commit themselves to the principle of collective responsibility in the House of Lords and not take a free ride by saying, "Yes, I will come into the House of Lords, yes I will support the Government when I think they are right, but I reserve the right to exercise my conscience in an awkward way whilst retaining my position if I think they are wrong." I think you would get a chaotic situation then.
Q186 Julie Morgan: So you think it is possible for people to come in, completely apolitical and function successfully as a minister from outside?
Sir John Major: I do, yes I do. I can think, and do not ask me to name them because it would embarrass lots of people, of quite a few politicians over the 30 years I have been in the House of Commons or close to it, who might have served in more than one party and who were concerned about pragmatic, good government rather than ideology. So I do think it is possible, yes. Some of them have served in rather senior positions.
Q187 Mr Prentice: So we would have a government stuffed full of technocrats, with no ideological leaning really, but they would just kind of do the right thing?
Sir John Major: The words "stuffed full" are rather evocative. I do not remember, Gordon, saying "stuffed full". I was thinking of the occasional people with particular skills. Do I think the government can survive with one or two people, or quite a few people, in it, who are not ideologues for their particular philosophy, most emphatically I do. Indeed I sometimes think government would be more effective if there were more pragmatists and fewer ideologues. There is a distinction I think between ideology and conviction, and I do think people need to have their convictions, but I do not think you need to have a government of ideologues, and some people who had no particular ideological bent but a pragmatic wish to serve and an intellectual and other capability to be of service, could be useful in government.
Q188 Mr Prentice: I am just wondering if the grit in the oyster you talked about earlier could end up as Prime Minister as you ended up? I have this quote in front of me, you talking about your own regrets, and you say, "I shall regret always that I found my own authentic voice in politics, I was too conservative, too conventional, too safe, too often, too defensive, too reactive, later too often on the back foot." Just reading that quote and reflecting on it, it surprised me that you ended up where you did in Number 10, and I do not say that in an impertinent way at all.
Sir John Major: I was referring to my time in Number 10 rather than prior to that, and I do not move away from that quote at all. That was a reflective and I hope honest view, after the event, of how things might have been different. I do not want to traipse over the problems of the 1990s again, they were there, they have gone, we have moved on, but I think you have to learn from it. There is no point denying what the problems were, or not reflecting honestly upon them. The quote you produced just now is a perfectly fair reflection of what my view was some time after I left government.
Q189 Mr Prentice: Can I turn to the problems of 2009 because we had Ann Abraham in front of us, last week I think, talking about the Equitable Life saga, something which has been going on for years and years and years, and she bemoaned the fact that for "Parliament" you might read "Government" because of the strong whipping system, with MPs voting the party line instead of standing back and looking at the issue in the round and coming to their own conclusions about it. My question to you is this, would you like to see more free votes, not on peripheral matters but really quite big issues like Equitable Life? Is there a role for more free votes in this Parliament which you envisage?
Sir John Major: I think within limits, yes. I think within limits there are. I mean it is a problem, that if ever a government is defeated on a major issue technically it needs to resign. In practice I think there are occasions - and we do this in terms of things like embryology - where we have free votes on really important issues. I think there may be some other issues - I do not know whether this one would fall in that category - where it might be wise to let the House of Commons have its head without a whipping system; I would not object to that.
Q190 Mr Prentice: You were a previous Chancellor, a previous Chief Secretary, and you will be familiar - even though you spend so much time out of the country - with the history of Equitable Life. Do you think - looking at that issue in particular - there is a case for a free vote on something with the huge public expenditure ramifications that there could be?
Sir John Major: I did say I do not know whether I can comment on that particular issue. As it happens, I may know less about Equitable Life than you may imagine; I have not particularly studied it. One of the advantages of not being in politics any more is that I do not have to pretend to have an opinion upon everything I have not studied. If I have not studied it I can say I have not studied it and not have an opinion. So I will choose to do so on this particular occasion. I do think there may be a case for rather more free votes. I think the other thing that actually is the flipside of this is, one of the problems it seems to me in government is that senior ministers, given the pressure of our political system - which is more pressurised than almost any in the world, I think - is they have very little thinking time. They do not have time to sit back and do blue skies thinking or reflect entirely afresh upon the policies to which their party is committed. They do not come and say, "I wonder whether that actually in retrospect is right". There is an idea that existed some time ago, and I think it was originally invented by Michael Palliser of the Foreign Office; he had a policy planning staff in the Foreign Office that was a sort of antibody to departmental culture, and I think David Miliband may have revived it - I am not entirely sure about that - and that (to borrow the phrase of a few minutes earlier) was intended to be the "grit in the oyster". That would be an ideal body for some of these outside experts to join. It would be quite refreshing to see a policy planning staff with the leeway to be counterintuitive within every department, so that you actually consistently get somebody within the department challenging what is being done with external help and asking: is this really right? We all know you can get caught in a tramline on policy and find it very difficult to move off it, and very little fresh thinking often is devoted to that policy. I think that sort of grit in every department would be an extremely helpful aid to policy; and it would be very useful to put policy advisers in it. We have tsars, we have envoys, we have advisers, we have political advisers, we have all sorts of things now - they are of mixed value some of them, I think - but a policy adviser attached to a unit like that with the freedom within the department to think the unthinkable and question the accepted wisdom I think would be a very useful addition to the making of good policy.
Q191 Mr Prentice: Is that not often the role of backbenchers? I remember Tony Blair when we won that famous victory in 1997, at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, with his jacket off and his gleaming white shirt, saying to us, "Just remember you [that is Labour MPs] are our ambassadors, not our shop stewards". I remember thinking at the time, "My, you've got that wrong. If we can't tell where the Government is going off the rails no-one can". I suppose my question is this: to what extent -----
Sir John Major: How effective do you think that was in the next ten years?
Q192 Mr Prentice: How? In keeping us quiet?
Sir John Major: I am sorry, I know I am here to answer questions and not ask them but I would be interested to know what you thought about that?
Chairman: The answer would differ as to whether you said five years or ten years, I think.
Prentice: My question is this: in most comparable democracies - and you
mentioned Canada - Members of Parliament, whether it is the Liberal Party, the
NDP, or the Conservatives, they meet together as a caucus and take a view on
the big issues of the day; and it would be inconceivable in these comparable
democracies for huge policy changes to be made because they are instructed by
the leadership - which is what happens in Britain. Colleagues from
Sir John Major: I cannot answer for the Parliamentary Labour Party. I can only say in the period that I was there if the 1922 Committee did not like a policy the Chairman of the 1922 Committee would be in to see the minister concerned or the Prime Minister pretty quickly or, more likely, in to see the Chief Whip, and the Chief Whip would be in to see the Prime Minister or the minister pretty quickly. If you do not carry your party with you on a policy then there are obviously turbulent times ahead. Of course there is a role for backbenchers - it would be absurd not to say there is - there has to be; but the whole thrust of what I was trying to say earlier was to try and put Parliament in a position where the executive is more challenged than it has been in the past. I absolutely agree with the thrust of your question and I think there are many ways of doing it, some of which I suggested.
Q194 Chairman: Can I return, as we come towards the end, to this question about the professional politician, because it is something that you picked up in what you said today and what you said in your article in The Times. We have heard a lot of it and it is obviously something that we, most of us, talk about as well. Lord Turnbull, a former Cabinet Secretary, when he came to us said, "There is a growing trend for people to come into politics more or less straight from university. They lick envelopes in Central Office, become a special adviser, on and on it goes, and by the time they are in their mid 30s they are Cabinet ministers, barely touching the sides of real life". I think we can all recognise the people that he is talking about right across politics; but it is a funny thing, is it not, because there is no other area of life where we would not demand that the people who engage in it are not professional, and a sense of devoting their life to it; politics, we say, should be different. But I notice that in the article you wrote your argument was not that these people, the people with more experience of life rather than people that I just described, should not go into government, should not become Cabinet ministers - because you talked earlier on about the skills that you need to develop through a lifetime of activity to be good at it - you say in your piece that you think these people should come in and be backbenchers; they should be the "Why?" people. I see the logic of that but, if we go down that route, with politics in the House as frustrating as you have described it, and as we all know it to be, why on earth would such people want to be doing something like that?
Sir John Major: No, I was also talking about people coming into government, not just into the backbenches. If I failed to give you that impression let me try and correct it now. I do think there is a role to bring people into government. I would like to widen the intake into the House of Commons. I would certainly like to do that, although I understand the obvious difficulties of doing that, in getting people selected; but I do think there is a role in bringing people into government who are particularly talented.
Q195 Chairman: But your article with Douglas Hurd says, "We have in mind professionals who have succeeded in their chosen career and have years of energy and good health ahead of them, which they could use not as ministers but as backbenchers to control the government of their country". That was your proposal?
Sir John Major: Yes, but not instead of being ministers. Of course, we were assuming that some of them might come in as ministers; I am not excluding that at all. We would like some of them to come in as backbenchers if we can - we certainly would. That is why I advocated an alternative career structure that would give more incentive for people like that to come in. Somebody coming into the House of Commons at over 50 is not realistically going to expect a ministerial career that is going to end up in Number 10, Number 11, the Foreign Office or the Home Office; they are not going to expect that; but they certainly could come in with experience and expect to be maybe Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee or the Public Administration Committee, have a senior place in Parliament and make a proper significant contribution to the way Parliament works. That was the point we were seeking to address in that particular sentence.
Q196 Chairman: Let me then try a different approach to it, which is: you have been pretty damning in your description of the feebleness of Parliament now, but positive about the proposals that you have to do something about it; but is not the problem that we talk endlessly about the problem of the feebleness of Parliament and the need to do something about it - and we talk about it especially now but it is not a new theme - but we have a system where the Government controls essentially the entire business of the House; reform could only come through a government deciding to change things and governments for very sensible reasons - their own reasons - do not?
Sir John Major: Governments respond to stimuli like everybody else; indeed, we might argue that governments respond too readily to stimuli too often. I think a good deal of that stimuli could well come from the sort of reports that committees like this can produce. That is why select committees are so important. I think they have to push at that door until it opens and - if governments do not like it - continue to make the argument. I am afraid I do not believe that we should have an elected dictatorship for five years, whatever its majority is. I simply do not believe that. I think that is simply not the democratic system that I find attractive. There should be many more stresses, many more balances; and if that is inconvenient for governments, well, it is inconvenient for governments and I think they have to live with it; but you are going to have to push them. I can make speeches about it outside; I can offer evidence to you; but you are going to have to push for it inside the House of Commons. You are going to have to say, "The present situation is unsatisfactory. We, the select committee, recommend that it is changed".
Q197 Chairman: We have been pushing -----
Sir John Major: Keep pushing!
Q198 Chairman: ----- almost fruitlessly for years; but the point is, the brute reality is, governments have no interest - no self-interest - in making life more uncomfortable for themselves.
Sir John Major: Hang on a moment, government had no interest in 1979 in introducing a select committee system, but they did. Why did they do that? They did that because they thought it was the right thing to do. Perhaps a similarly enlightened moment might come about in the future. When it does come about in the future, let us make sure the right ideas are in the ether so they can be adopted. I do not take the view that every government is automatically going to be so self-centred and so cynical that it will not try and produce a parliamentary system that will be more popular, more workable and more effective in the future.
Sir John Major: I am sorry, I missed the last part?
Q200 Kelvin Hopkins: That you accepted that strong backbenchers and strong ministers and a bit of challenge from time to time were understandably part of the system, but that this was not so under Tony Blair?
Sir John Major: I think that is a function of the size of the majority. It is thought somehow to be strong. If you have a big majority, it is very easy to be strong because your majority and your payroll vote is so large you can just ignore anything, even if it has total commonsense behind it; that is the position governments with large majorities get into. Governments without large majorities have to be more sensitive to the realities of political life. Whatever I may wish to do, if I could not have got it through the House of Commons I could not do it - that is the brute truth. Some of the things I wanted to do would have been very unpopular with many people here. For example, the Post Office - now the subject of great public interest - I would like to have privatised that in the early 1990s but I could not because the rightwing of my party, the populist right, simply said, "They won't support it because you'll lose rural post offices" in their view; so we did not have a majority to do it. At the end of the day you may say, "That's very weak, you didn't do it", but it would have been folly to push ahead with something where you knew you were bound to be defeated. There is a distinct difference between a government with a large majority and a government with a small majority. It is not unrelated to that that I referred to the question of the freakish majorities that our system sometimes throws out.
Q201 Paul Flynn: A splendid select committee report in your time was one by the Select Committee on Transport with a Conservative Chairman and a majority of Conservative members who unanimously opposed the privatisation of the railways. You went ahead with it. What do you think of that?
Sir John Major: I do not think that select committee report preceded the privatisation of the railways.
Q202 Paul Flynn: It did.
Sir John Major: Which was in the manifesto and, in any event, I am bound to say I do not wish to argue about the railways unless you really wish to invite me back to do that.
Q203 Paul Flynn: But my point is -----
Sir John Major: No, I understand your point, but the plain fact of the matter is I am not here to defend everything I did in 1992; but I would defend the privatisation of the railways, because I saw no other way in which we were going to get sufficient capital to produce a modern railway system; and a belief with government finances as they were, and certainly as they are, that without access to the private capital markets, there would be no new rolling stock, and no new improvements on the railways. We can argue about that all day but it is not what I am here for, but I think that is the reason.
Q204 Paul Flynn: The general point is, unless a government is committed to reform - the Labour Government is committed to freedom of information, it came back and bit the Government eventually - but I think the reform you will see from this is the redistribution of the boundaries and there will be a fairer electoral system but only because it will suit, if the Conservatives are elected, the interests of a Conservative Government. The depressing thing about this is - while we are all optimistic and we hope for reforms - the truth is that governments tend to all behave in the same way, which is in their own interests; and the future governments will introduce reforms but only if they accord with their own private interests.
Sir John Major: I am sorry you take quite such a cynical view of it. I do not agree with that view. I think governments are not entirely comprised of people who are so self-centred that they cannot see beyond their own party interest. I do not believe that to be true. It is a very fashionable view I know in many quarters, but I happen not to agree with that. I hope events will prove that I am right and you are mistaken.
Chairman: That is not directed at you!
Sir John Major: I think Parliament has been diminished by the lack of a broad intake. I can see a number of reasons - including the one you mentioned - why that intake has contracted. I think there are probably other reasons to do with parliamentary life that affect it as well. I think the concern one might have if one looks forward is: how attractive is it to come into Parliament if you are someone on an average income, who is married with two children, coming into the House of Commons for a marginal seat? If you look at the immediate and long-term interests of yourself and your family, is that necessarily an attractive option? I am not entirely sure at the moment that it is, for a range of reasons that go far beyond simple financial remuneration.
Sir John Major: There are other changes as well in the work of Parliament and of ministers. I would guess that in the last 15-20 years membership of the European Union has meant a day and a half's work a week for the Prime Minister over a year; it has increased the workload absolutely enormously. You are quite right; there is a great deal of work in terms of social work rather than political work for the constituency Member. A point I should perhaps have made I think to David Heyes when he asked me about that, I have some experience of what more work would be with a larger constituency. I had a constituency that I do not think hardly ever fell below 90,000, and may at one stage have got up to 100,000, during the years in which I was in Parliament; so I am fully aware of the extent of constituency commitment - although I fancy it has increased in the days of the internet, text messages and everything else. I think it is probably rather different than it was when I was there, and I would happily concede that.
Q207 Chairman: We have had a very wide-ranging discussion, which I think we ought to bring to a close. Paul, rather disobligingly, reminded you of a question that he asked you years ago. Could I say, I asked you a question years ago and Matthew Parris, sketch writing in The Times, reported it as me having asked a sensible question and you having answered giving a sensible answer. He went on to say this was a kind of glimmer of what Prime Minister's Questions could be, although it would be dreadfully dull! My memories of it are different from Paul's. You have been very, very open and refreshing and frank with us and we, I think, have benefited hugely from the reflections that you have given us. We are very, very grateful to you for coming along and helping us in the way that you have. Thank you.
Sir John Major: Thank you very much, Chairman. I enjoyed meeting you all. Thank you.