John Major

Conservative Party

Image credit: John Major Prime Minister of Great Britain, circa 1994. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

John Major

I want to see us build a country that is at ease with itself, a country that is confident and a country that is able and willing to build a better quality of life for all its citizens.

Conservative Party

November 1990 - May 1997

28 Nov 1990 - 2 May 1997

John Major Prime Minister of Great Britain, circa 1994

Image credit: John Major Prime Minister of Great Britain, circa 1994. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Key Facts

Tenure dates

28 Nov 1990 - 2 May 1997

Length of tenure

6 years, 155 days


Conservative Party


Norma Johnson


29 Mar 1943

Birth place

St Helier, Surrey, England

About John Major

John Major’s premiership was dominated by the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. He tried to make a country ‘more at ease with itself’, entrenching Thatcherism whilst ameliorating its rough edges. He successfully negotiated the Maastricht Treaty and won a surprising election victory in 1992. However, during his second ministry, the Conservative Party became deeply divided over Europe and was humiliated by scandals, and was subsequently heavily defeated in the 1997 election.

John Major was born in 1943, the son of a former music hall performer. He grew up in South West London. He disliked school and left aged 16 with three O-levels. In 1956, he watched the budget debate in the House of Commons, and was inspired, choosing to embark on a political career.

Major started by working in banking, but it was not a certain career, and he was unemployed for several months in 1962. He worked for the London Electricity Board and then District and Standard banks. Over 1966-67, he worked in Nigeria on secondment for Standard Bank, before a serious car accident required him to return home.

Upon his return, he redoubled his efforts in his political career, gaining election to the Lambeth Borough Council in 1968. In 1974, Major was elected as MP to Huntingdonshire in 1979.

In Parliament during the early 1980s, Major was good at making contacts and worked hard, though was not a particularly high-profile politician. In January 1983, he was appointed an assistant whip, which is not a particularly imposing position, but certainly carries notability amongst MPs. It also meant regular contact with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to whom he conveyed backbench concerns.

Having gained the respect of party leaders, Major was appointed a Parliamentary Under Secretary for Social Security in 1985, and then minister for Social Security in 1986. In 1987, after Thatcher’s third election victory, he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury. A position in which he worked hard and excelled. During this time, he started to be seen as a ‘favourite’ of Thatcher, who admired his professionalism.

In 1989, she unexpectedly replaced Geoffrey Howe with Major as Foreign Secretary. Major was initially daunted by the prospect. He began learning the basics and had meetings with opposite numbers. However, his tenure ended after just 94 days when Chancellor Nigel Lawson resigned, and Thatcher replaced him with Major in October. Less than two and a half years before, Major had not even been in cabinet, and now he was occupying his second position amongst the ‘Great Offices of State’.

Major was Chancellor for just 13 months, delivering only one budget. In November 1990, Thatcher resigned. The MPs selected John Major as the best candidate for her successor. It helped that he had a reputation as her favourite. He never escaped her shadow.

As Prime Minister, Major sought a less harsh brand of conservatism to that practiced by his predecessor. His first ministry would be dominated by the economic recession of the early 1990s and the negotiations over the European Maastricht Treaty. Despite the recession, Major narrowly won the 1992 election.

In late 1992, Major’s credibility was damaged by Britain’s chaotic exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Economic growth was restored by 1993, the government’s reputation for economic competence never recovered.

Over the 1990s, Major’s Conservatives became increasingly divided over the European Union. In June 1995, Major resigned as leader of the party and triggered a leadership election. He won the ballot of MPs, but the party’s troubles continued. A string of ‘sleaze’ scandals also damaged the government’s credibility.

Major was heavily defeated in the May 1997 election. That morning, Blair paid tribute to ‘dignity and his courage over the last few days and the manner of his leaving, the essential decency of which is the mark of the man’. He is the most recent Prime Minister to have resigned on the morning after an election defeat.

Key Events


Major became Prime Minister thanks to his popularity amongst Conservative MPs, his reputation as Thatcher’s favourite, and because the MPs believed that he was the best candidate to stop Michael Heseltine.

He talked about a ‘classless’ society and aimed to ameliorate the social damage caused by Thatcherism, whilst maintaining the economic achievements of the 1980s.

As a politician, Major was less strident and more businesslike than his predecessor. Major was polite, amiable, and mild-mannered. He was nicknamed ‘the grey man’ and it was a reputation that he never shook off.

During his first ministry, Major looked to measures that might help to end the severe recession that affected the country. At first, the indicators were bad – unemployment rose to 2.5 million and inflation reached 15%.

Meanwhile, Major had to negotiate the Maastricht Treaty. The treaty was aimed at binding the European Community into the European Union, following the reunification of Germany in 1990. Major was able to secure opt outs on social policy and the European Single Currency.  Initially, the press was filled with praise, and the Conservative Party was united, Major described it as ‘the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph’.

In 1991, Major unveiled the Citizen’s Charter. This was an initiative to improve public services by providing the public with more choice and information. Major abolished the ‘Poll Tax’ that had played a large role in the undoing of his predecessor. It was replaced by the Council Tax system from 1993.

Two months after Major became Prime Minister, Operation Desert Storm commenced. This was the American-led military operation to defeat Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait the previous August. For five weeks, allied air forces bombed Iraq, before ground units advanced. Kuwait was swiftly liberated, with little loss to the allied armies.

Few expected Major to win the 1992 election, and the opinion polls suggested that a hung parliament would be the most likely outcome. Major took to the streets, standing on a soap box, making the case directly to voters. This contrasted with his opponent, Neil Kinnock, whose public appearances were much more stage managed. Meanwhile, a ruthless Conservative campaign focused on the tax rises that might accompany a Labour government. On polling day, Major’s Conservatives won an unexpected majority of 21.

In September 1992, Britain exited the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Major himself had been the Chancellor who took Britain into the ERM, but the pound was overvalued. Germany would not revalue the Deutschemark, despite British requests. Major repeatedly denied that Britain would devalue or realign the pound or leave the ERM. Then, on Wednesday 16 September 1992, there was a financial crisis. Interest rates were raised repeatedly until they hit 15% and billions of pounds were spent shoring up the pound’s value. By the end of the day, the Chancellor Norman Lamont announced that Britain would be leaving the ERM. It became known as ‘Black Wednesday’, and the economic credibility of the Conservatives was badly damaged. Labour took an opinion poll lead that they never lost.

In May 1993, Chancellor Norman Lamont resigned from the government. Major had offered him another role, but he had declined and left. Lamont gave a resignation speech in which he described the government as ” being in office but not in power”.

Nevertheless, by 1993, the economy was recovering. Lamont’s successor, Kenneth Clarke proved an effective Chancellor. By 1997, unemployment, government borrowing, and interest rates had all fallen. The economy would continue to show robust growth until the 2008 financial crisis.

However, politically, Major’s government struggled. The Maastricht rebels ensured that it was difficult to pass legislation, and the Conservative Party was deeply divided over Europe. In 1993, Major would defeat a Vote of No Confidence in the House of Commons. In 1995, Major resigned as leader of the Conservative Party on 22 June, asking the Party to ‘put up or shut up’. The Eurosceptic John Redwood stood against him. But, ultimately, Major triumphed, winning the votes of 218 MPs to 89.

In late 1993, Major tried to regain the political initiative with his ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, which was supposed to promote traditional values and social conservatism. However, a string of sex and ‘sleaze’ scandals involving Conservatives followed, with the press making mockery of Major’s campaign.

Northern Ireland would take up a great deal of Major’s time. The IRA had attempted to assassinate him with a mortar bombing attack on Downing Street in February 1991. The windows of the Cabinet Room were damaged and the ministers briefly hid beneath the table, before Major remarked ‘I think we’d better start again somewhere else’. After that, there was much patient diplomacy with Irish counterpart Albert Reynolds, and the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 helped to set the stage for later breakthroughs.

A difficult crisis began in 1991 as Yugoslavia broke up. Major committed British troops to the region as peacekeepers. In 1995, he backed NATO intervention in the Bosnian conflict which finally ended the war.

Major formed a strong partnership with US President George H. W. Bush, and the two men were temperamentally quite similar. The relationship with the next President, Bill Clinton was less strong, though they worked together on the Bosnian crisis and Northern Irish Peace Process.

When the election finally came in May 1997, Major’s Conservative were heavily defeated. They lost 178 seats and were left with only 165. It was the worst result for the Conservatives since the beginning of the 20th Century.

After leaving power, Major was briefly Leader of the Opposition. After that, his interventions in public life tended to be rare, though he has attracted controversy over his criticisms of Brexit since 2016.

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