Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 207)



  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.

  Kelvin Hopkins: If we go back to the gene pool of the House of Commons—which in the past was, I think, sufficient to produce strong governments, strong Cabinets, very good ministers—the gene pool has been diminished, has it not? How much do you think this has been diminished by the obsessive control of selections—at least by my party—to make sure that strong, big beasts do not get into Parliament so that you have a backbench stuffed full of compliant loyalists and special advisers slotted into safe seats?

  Chairman: That is not directed at you!

  Q205  Kelvin Hopkins: Does that not diminish Parliament?

  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.

  Q206  Kelvin Hopkins: Could I just follow that point, if I may. I do agree actually. When I was elected I was told by a member of my family, "I thought you were going to be a legislator, not a social worker". The fact is that we have an enormous amount of constituency pressures—even if you have got a relatively good majority—and we have to be both a social worker and a socialite, to get round to as many functions as you possibly can. This is a very different life from that which existed, say, 40 or 50 years ago, when Members of Parliament saw their role primarily—

  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.

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