Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – 19 January 2019

Below is the text of Nick Robinson’s interview with Sir John Major, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 19 January 2019.


NICK ROBINSON

Sir John, good morning to you.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Good morning Nick.

NICK ROBINSON

As well as a little sympathy and a little empathy perhaps for Theresa May, what advice would you give her this morning?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I have more than a little sympathy, I think that she was handed a poisoned chalice and it has been extremely difficult. It’s extremely difficult, apart from the substance of the issue, because of the divisions blocking one particular movement by her or another, as you set out a moment ago. So her position has been all but impossible, and I think the country recognise that. But we are now reaching a critical few weeks, we’re due to leave on 29 March and so we’re running out of time.

If we leave in chaos and without a deal, that seems to me to be the worst of all outcomes and the Prime Minister is going to have to find a way round that. Her problem is that there are some people in Parliament, some anti-European enthusiasts, who would actually prefer no deal and will stand in the way of compromise. So the task for the Prime Minister is to find a way to go around them and there are only limited options to do that.

NICK ROBINSON

She says that her duty, and she said it the other day outside Number 10, is to deliver on the democratic decision of the British people. She may disagree with you might she not? She might say no, I have a duty to make sure we do leave on whatever terms. Is she wrong?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Any Prime Minister has many duties. Of course she needs to look at the result of the referendum, but she mustn’t forget the 48% of the people who voted, who actually voted to stay inside the European Union and whose views cannot lightly be brushed aside as though they didn’t exist. But the Prime Minister has other duties as well, it has become evident in the two years since 2016, much clearer than it was, what the impact of that is going to be on the lives of everyday people in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister, the Government and Parliament have a primary duty also to look after the people’s future well-being, their well-being and the well-being of those young people coming onto the register who weren’t there in 2016, and those in future years, so there are a whole series of responsibilities that the Prime Minister must weigh.

NICK ROBINSON

Just to be clear, before we move onto how she might do what you want her to do. If she thinks that there is only one duty, the duty to deliver on the democratic decision of the British people as she puts it, you would say no, there is something that trumps that, more important, even if that means breaking your word, if it means delay or if it means changing your mind?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I would say that there are other duties that are equally important that stand alongside it, if I may put it that way. Let me come back to the question of the result of the referendum, before we move on to what we might do. I think the argument that because that there was a majority on one day, under a particular set of circumstances, that must stand absolutely sacrosanct for ever, even though public opinion may change and facts may change, is a very difficult one to accept.

Democracy is always nuanced, 48% wish to remain, and yet the leavers, who quite frankly won the vote with dubious tactics and downright falsehoods in some cases, totally ignore them. It’s even more bizarre if you actually look at the figures, only 37% of those eligible to vote actually voted to leave, 63% either voted to stay or did not vote.

NICK ROBINSON

I’m keen, and I know you are, to look forwards.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Absolutely, but let me finish this sentence. It will be 100% of the population who may be hurt if we leave or if we leave with the wrong deal. That is a very clear responsibility for the Prime Minister.

NICK ROBINSON

The point I merely wanted to put, and then let’s go forwards as you say, is about how the Prime Minister gets round those people, your phrase, who are a block. I need to put it to you, because it’s only fair, you say what the leavers said, but at the time of the referendum, you said and I quote, if we come out, we are out, that is it, if we vote to stay out, we are out and we’ll have to get on with it. You too can eat your words can’t you?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I am happy to eat my words. The most important thing at the moment is what it is actually going to mean for everyday people. People like you and I Nick, to be frank, whatever happens we’ll be OK. We may be hurt a bit, we might gain a bit, but we’ll be OK. I’m no longer in politics, I have no axe to grind,  I’m not part of the remain campaign and I’m certainly not part of the leave campaign and I can look at it quite dispassionately, I don’t have to get elected, I don’t have an executive, I don’t have whips telling me what to do.

I will tell you my fear. My fear is that millions of people who do not deserve to be hurt, businesses, individuals, families and young people with prospects are going to be hurt. If I have to eat my past words because I now realise that is the case, then I will make a meal of them every single day, because it is the future and those people who I believe are the primary responsibility of Parliament. If Parliament does not address that responsibility, then Parliament in my view will have failed in its duty.

NICK ROBINSON

Two things that you’re advocating this morning. First, that the Prime Minister should, to return to that phrase, get round those critics who you say want to crash out without a deal, in your words, leaving Britain in chaos. How can she get round them without producing a mass walkout of the Cabinet and a catastrophic split in her own party?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I’ll come to that, but may I make some suggestions as to what might happen? Some will be more difficult for the Prime Minister to swallow than others. The obvious one is that the Prime Minister lifts some of her red lines, which would put us in a completely different situation. There’s no sign that she’s going to do that, but that in the national interest is an option that is worth her considering. But, if she won’t, I think that there are only three other options. Let me take them and consider how likely they are.

The first is that the Cabinet decides the way ahead. Frankly, I think that is now impossible, the Cabinet is too split and there are people in the Cabinet who have made it clear that they would prefer no deal. I don’t think they will be moveable and she cannot move with a united cabinet and I am afraid that she is trapped, and it’s very unfortunate for her, but that is the position.

The second is that Parliament decides. Parliament is also split, but I think that there are signs that Parliament may be able to reach a consensus and there is hope there. We might come back on how to do that a little later.

If neither of those produces a policy, if the Cabinet can’t agree and Parliament can’t agree, there is only one option left standing and that is a second referendum, now that more facts are known than were known in 2016.

NICK ROBINSON

Let’s take the second of your options, and then come back to the referendum, let’s take it that Parliament will decide. As a former Prime Minister, is it constitutionally proper, is it sustainable in truth, for Parliament to in effect become the executive? To become the body that forms policy and then takes it abroad, takes it to the European Union to negotiate, it’s not actually doable is it?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think that is extremely difficult and that wasn’t what I was going to propose. The Prime Minister argued valiantly for her deal, she fought for it, she got a deal, but the House of Commons killed it and killed it comprehensively. So her deal is dead and I don’t honestly think that tinkering with it is going to make very much difference, if any difference at all. So the Prime Minister still needs a deal. If she can’t deliver one that Parliament accepts, then she will need to become a facilitator, a mediator, to find out what Parliament will accept. I think there is a way she can do that, I personally would hope that she puts down a series of motions so that Members of Parliament can indicate their preference. We can then see whether there is a consensus in Parliament that is possible, that Parliament would accept.

Ideally for that, all party leaders would permit a free vote, so we can get an honest representation of Parliament. That is in the Prime Minister’s interests for this reason, it’s the only way to get an absolutely honest answer from Members of Parliament and if it is a free vote, it removes the danger of resignations from Government or the opposition front bench because they disagree with their leader’s policy.

NICK ROBINSON

A free vote with significant political history, which you and I will know, but this is what Ted Heath did back in the 1970s when there was a pretty catastrophic split about whether to join what was called the Common Market. Why do you believe that the free vote is an essential part of this?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

For many reasons. Firstly, if there’s a whip then many Members of Parliament would follow the whip out of loyalty to their party or their leader, rather than loyalty to their conscience and their constituents. That’s not necessarily because they’re bad people, I don’t think they are, that’s just the way things are in Parliament. You are part of the Conservative tribe, the Liberal Democratic tribe, the Labour tribe. Wherever you can, you prefer to stay with the leadership view on issues.

This is such a unique issue that I think it would be an act of statesmanship by the party leaders to say, because of the very strong opinions held on either side, we are going to lift the party whips so that Parliament and the country can get a genuine view of exactly what it is that Members of Parliament think is best for our country, or perhaps, least bad, for our country. It’s a unique way of doing it, but I think it is justifiable.

NICK ROBINSON

You’ve set out at some length exactly what you think should happen. Allow me to put it to you, what some people will be saying, not least within your own party, as a recent poll showed that 76% of grassroots Conservatives would vote in another referendum, if it were offered, for leaving with no deal at all. What they’ll say is that we know what Sir John Major thinks, he wants us to stay in. He doesn’t want any sort of deal, therefore they would argue that what you are doing is coming up with what Boris Johnson said the other day is shameful, was dishonest, and is weakening our negotiating position, as it is ripping up promises made to the electorate and statements made to the EU.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I must say that being called dishonest by Boris Johnson is a rum thing to happen. If I may counter with your statistic, 56% of people in the latest polls say that they would prefer to remain in the European Union. So, I think these ancient statistics really don’t enlighten things very much. I think we have to concentrate solely on what is right for the people of this country.

NICK ROBINSON

But clearly what they think is right for the country is to leave the European Union as people voted for, there is not a single view of what is in the national interest. If there were, we wouldn’t have the problem.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Of course there isn’t Nick, but there is clear evidence that people’s views are beginning to change, not dramatically, but there is growing evidence that is continuing that people would like a second referendum and their views about what the right outcome is may have changed.

NICK ROBINSON

Would you stomach your second option? If you’re going to have a series of indicative votes in the House of Commons, I know you won’t be taking part, but it means people like you who would like to remain, like you who want a second referendum, might have to accept that they can’t get their way for the sake of compromise. They might have to back a deal for some sort of Brexit that they don’t like, they don’t want, but they’d bite their lip and agree to. Would you urge people who share your views to be prepared to make that sort of compromise if necessary?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Everyone may have to compromise as in a circumstance such as this, no-one is going to get their way. Many people think compromise is weak, but I think compromise is often very wise. We had to compromise at the beginning of the Northern Ireland peace process. I had to consult, if not compromise, when we actually went to war with the first Gulf War, it is wise to consult and to compromise. If we can reach an agreement which avoids the country being as bitterly split as it might, is it not worth swallowing some new ideas and swallowing some things you might not like? I would much prefer to stay in the European Union, I voted that way and I have not changed my mind that that is in our interests as a country and is in our interests for commerce and is in the interests of the well-being of millions of everyday people.

NICK ROBINSON

What about an election to resolve this?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I don’t think an election is going to do a great deal. Mrs. May has been committed to we must honour the Brexit deal, which means leave, and so is Mr Corbyn, so I’m not sure that will prove anything. One of the more stupid things I’ve heard Ministers and others say recently is that 80% of the public in the last election voted for parties who wanted to leave. That is completely stupid, as people would have voted for 100 different reasons, not only on Europe. I voted for the Conservative Party at the last election, but it doesn’t mean that I want to leave the European Union.

NICK ROBINSON

I was speaking to voters last night in Milton Keynes, some remain and some leave, and what was striking was that every single one of them believed that we would delay leaving the European Union. Is it your conclusion that delay is now inevitable?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I don’t think that it is inevitable, but I think it would be wise and it is now probable that we will actually have to delay. I think that is right, because even if the Prime Minister doesn’t put down these facilitating motions, then it maybe that other people will. The opposition could on an opposition day, and even if they don’t, perhaps senior Members of Parliament could put down early day motions covering different issues simply so that Members can sign them and give an indication of where Parliamentary opinion is.

So there are a whole range of events that could happen that are pushing us to delay article 50. I think that, in many ways, is wise. It may be that we end up leaving, but it is better to leave when we are prepared to leave, and in a position to leave, than when we are patently not prepared which will be the position on March 29, barring a miracle that I personally cannot see coming about. So, I think it is probable that we will have to delay.