When we booked John Major to speak to us parliamentary journalists this week we were expecting some gentle reflections on his time in office in the nineties. Perhaps some thoughts about his predecessor Margaret Thatcher being a back seat driver or about the soapbox he used in 1992 to deliver the Conservatives last General Election victory.
But no, the former Prime Minister decided to wade into the energy debate with a call for a windfall tax on the energy companies. It was a reminder to all that the man who won a fourth term for the Conservatives is still around. He rarely makes speeches and generally avoids embarrassing the government but it was clear from listening to him that he was getting a lot off his chest.
MAJOR POWER CUT
But to return to the hot political topic of the moment, energy. I thought I’d ask Mr Major if he felt any responsibility for the current crisis. After all it is the long term failure of successive government to invest in our energy infrastructure that has left us with a perfect storm. Coal and old nuclear power plants closing, the increasing need to import expensive gas and rocketing bills.
Major’s government was in office about half way between 1961 when Britain opened its first commercial nuclear plant (and led the world with the technology) and 2023 when the Hinckley Point station announced this week will come on line. The early nineties would have been the time to plan for the future given the long investment lead times needed. With the frankness only available to an elder statesman John Major told me that he was “happy to admit to a million errors and failing to do anything about civil nuclear power was one of them.”
One can admire his honesty but be appalled either at the short sightedness of our energy planners or the cowardice of our politicians in the face of voters fears about nuclear leaks or spending money on projects that would not bring short term electoral advantage.
Anyway the new nuclear programme is now under way with the Chinese and French in charge. It should mean plenty of work for us in the north of England where many of the skills are located. Let’s hope the waste issue has been thoroughly thought through this time as we continue to incur the massive decommissioning costs of the old nuclear industry.
MAJOR ON WINNING IN THE NORTH
Apart from energy we were treated at the lunch to some old fashioned one nation Toryism. Mr Major declared that his party would never fight back in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool by pandering to its core vote. He referred to the “silent have nots, I know them, I grew up with them.” He mentioned “lace curtain poverty” and said Tory policy had to be addressed to them.
His time as Prime Minister was undermined by Euro sceptic rebels headed by the current Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. He criticised the way he was handling the benefit reforms.
In an unguarded moment in 1995 he had called some of his Cabinet colleagues “bastards”. Getting years of frustration off his chest he told us on Tuesday “it was true, they were.”
He ended with a defence of our membership of the European Union that Ted Heath would have been proud of.
We may not hear from John Major again for some time but his words will need to be heeded by David Cameron who most of the time is being pressed to the right.