Britain’s former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major gave a speech this past week criticising the approach to Brexit of current PM, Theresa May. Major warned that the British people are being offered an ‘unreal and over-optimistic’ future and that achieving a trade deal within two years from the trigger of Article 50 is also ‘highly unlikely’. Major went on to say that the government should also offer ‘more charm and a lot less cheap rhetoric’ towards the rest of the EU.
During this astonishing intervention, Sir John cast doubt on the promises currently being made to British voters. May and her ministers have said nothing about the massive Brexit costs that could include a potential £60bn divorce bill, with damaging consequences to the NHS and welfare. Major also argued there is a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model. A model involving an enterprise economy with tax relief could be on the cards. Once this policy is understood by the public, says Major, it ‘would never command support’.
Sir John added there was ‘little chance’ that the advantages of being part of the EU single market could be replicated once the UK leaves. The former prime minister also said UK negotiators will need to show the highest statesmanship to secure any sort of deal. However ‘behind the diplomatic civilities, the atmosphere is already sour’.
Naturally, Major’s intervention was met with a chorus of dissent and raises the question: does the former PM have the moral right to be critical of the government or to even question the Brexit process given his own notorious difficulties with Europe? Let’s take the objections first.
Major has been criticised by Boris Johnson as one of those ‘droning and moaning’ of the risks. According to former Cabinet Minister Iain Duncan-Smith, the speech ‘was almost like a re-fight of the referendum’ and he accused Major of looking ‘backwards the whole time’. Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg added: ‘It was a craven and defeated speech of a bitter man who was heavily defeated by the electorate for his own failings in Europe in 1997’. He was ‘defeated again last June and now wishes to take out his failures on Mrs May’.
Support for Major came, perhaps not too surprisingly, from the opposition benches. Labour’s Chuka Umunna said: ‘It is absolutely right to warn that if the Government continues on its current course, we will end up with the kind of hard, destructive Brexit that costs jobs and damages our economy. Sir John is right to question how likely we will get a deal with the same benefits as today.’ Umunna is, of course, a supporter of Open Britain, the campaign group calling for close links to be retained with Brussels, and he added that ‘There is no chance at all of it being delivered if our European partners across the negotiating table continue to be demonised’. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron advised that ‘the Conservatives should listen to the likes of John Major and Heseltine instead of sneering at them. These are people with huge experience of negotiating with Europe, while the Brexiteers have no clear strategy’.
John Major is not the only former prime minister to express criticism of the Brexit plan. Tony Blair called for people to ‘rise up’ against a Brexit that could be described as destructive. The intervention of the two men is timely but also significant as they expresses the moderate position that’s rarely heard in the clamour for a hard exit from Europe. Both men represent the centrist wings of their parties and both have undergone the same vilification by opponents, both in their parties and the media. Just as Blair is the synecdoche for everything that the left wing press hated about the moderate Labour government, so too does Major represent liberal conservatism that remained committed to Europe. Major famously quarrelled with his own party over the Maastricht treaty and, although Blair led a party that was rarely fractured over Europe, the emergence of the Left under Corbyn has seen a split between the EU friendly moderates of New Labour and the sceptical Old Labour, many of whom see the EU agenda as being globalist and corporate.
In other words, both Major and Blair represent currently weakened but sizable constituencies in their own parties and both, surely, have as much right to speak as Major’s predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who criticised his European policy in autumn 1992. (Lady Thatcher said that Maastricht put Europe ‘on a conveyor belt to a single currency’ and felt that Britain would find itself committed to the Euro as we know it now.)
The fact that there is sniping shows a healthy resilience in Britain’s body politic. Labour under Corbyn look incapable of providing a real opposition, so perhaps it is only right that former prime ministers and other political figures such as Michael Hesletine and Peter Mandelson, should speak out. People willing to ask rigorous questions are vital in any parliamentary system. Major and Blair have the standing to raise objections that are felt by many in this country. The right seem to feel so empowered at the moment that they resent any form of opposition. The same, perhaps, is true in America where Trump describes the media as the ‘enemies of the people’ for simply questioning his actions. Here in the UK, it seems that it’s the former ministers who are being treated with scorn by those in power. Yet surely the job of Prime Ministers, both present and past, is to consider the good of the country in every debate and decision. Theresa May might have a majority and might well have a stronger hand after the next election. Yet she always rules through mandate and, no matter how strong she feels that mandate, it will never be absolute. Voices on both sides of the debate still need to be heard.