Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC’s HARDTalk – 5 July 2019

Below is the text of the interview between Stephen Sackur and Sir John Major, broadcast on BBC’s HARDTalk on Friday 5 July 2019.


STEPHEN SACKUR

Sir John Major, welcome to HARDtalk.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Good morning.

STEPHEN SACKUR

The Conservative Party leadership is in its final lap. You have been watching it very closely. What is it telling you about the state of your party?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party since my sixteenth birthday. It’s been a very large part of my life, I owe a great deal to it and I hope I‘ve given quite a lot to it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen our party so divided or in such difficulty as it is at the moment.

We need, as we look forwards, to look at what is right for the country. Let me make that point absolutely clear, the country is infinitely more important than the party. If asked to choose between the two, I would unhesitatingly choose the interests of the country. We do need a Prime Minister who can bring the country together. We need a Prime Minister who can negotiate with Europe, we need a Prime Minister who we can trust and we need a serious man for serious times.

STEPHEN SACKUR

The Justice Secretary in this current Conservative Government, David Gauke, said this just a very short time ago talking about the political atmosphere. He said “there is a willingness for politicians to say what they think the public wants to hear and there is right now a willingness from the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians.” Do you think that those words apply to this race?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think those words were intended to apply to this race. In many ways, they do apply to this race. We do need people to understand what really is at stake with Brexit. Thus far, from the very outset of the campaign, there’s been a great deal of misunderstanding and, frankly, a great deal of misinformation that was peddled to people about what Brexit is going to mean.

Nobody should be in any doubt of my position, I have not changed it. I voted to remain in the European Union, it is an imperfect organisation, it needs reform, it’s very frustrating, it’s a bit out of date and there’s a lot wrong with it. All that is true, but to leave the biggest, richest, free trade market in the world on the grounds that you’re going to go global is absurd.

The damage that will be done to us both in the short-term and in the long-term, people of my vintage are fine, we’re OK, we’ve finished our working lives, we’re perhaps quite comfortable in many cases, but our children aren’t and our grand-children aren’t and we are making a choice at the moment in leaving the European Union that I think is the worst foreign policy choice that Britain has made in my lifetime and a long time before. I think people need to understand that.

STEPHEN SACKUR

We’ll get to the big picture, what Brexit means for Britain and its place in the world, but you, as a Conservative, face a choice right now, in fact you may have received your ballot paper already. Many Tories have already received their ballot papers, many have already voted. Have you voted?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I haven’t received any ballot papers yet.

STEPHEN SACKUR

Who will you vote for?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

A ballot is private, but it’s fairly evident from my views that I cannot vote for someone who was part of the Brexit campaign which misled the country. So I shall offer my vote to Jeremy Hunt, and I don’t think anyone will be in any doubt about that. I hope that everyone, before casting their vote, will wait a little while. We need to see the two candidates properly examined by the media, we need to see both candidates appearing before the media, answering the difficult questions, explaining what they will do and explaining how they will do it.

STEPHEN SACKUR

Boris Johnson has refused to engage in a head to head debate with Jeremy Hunt thus far. The only one he’s agreed to will take place after many Conservatives have voted.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

In that case, the wise Conservative will wait until after Mr. Johnson has appeared before they make up their mind on which of the two they will vote for.

STEPHEN SACKUR

Does character matter in this race between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think character matters in politics, let alone just in the race for who is Prime Minister. Of course character matters and everyone will make their own particular judgements about character. It’s very important. The choices that you make, particularly as Prime Minister, are crucial. A proper leader will make a choice that is right for the country, even if it is wrong for himself and for his party. The wrong leader will make a choice for his party or himself rather than for his country. People have to make a judgement about everybody in politics as to where their priority lies.

STEPHEN SACKUR

Do you trust Boris Johnson?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I don’t know him very well. But, I do find many of the things that have been said by Boris Johnson, and by many others, to be in conflict with reality as I understand it.

STEPHEN SACKUR

In conflict with reality, also in conflict with the truth?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think the truth is reality, don’t you?

STEPHEN SACKUR

Are you saying to me?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

No, I’m not, and I’m not having those words put in my mouth. I’ve indicated for whom I’m voting and I think that Jeremy Hunt is the better choice for our country. I’m not here for character assassination on Boris Johnson. My preference is Jeremy Hunt for the reasons I’ve set out and the much bigger issue is not just who has misled us but how, but what the misleading is, what it will mean for our country and what it will mean for the people in our country.

STEPHEN SACKUR

On the key issue that I think it’s fair to say that most Conservatives are voting upon, that is who is best equipped to deliver the Brexit that the overwhelming number of Conservatives want. It seems that Boris Johnson’s fundamental message of Brexit ‘do or die’ has coloured this whole campaign. Indeed, it’s arguable that Jeremy Hunt has signed up to the very same message.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Before I come directly to answer that question, you say the Brexit that the majority of Conservatives want. Let’s not forget that an awful lot of people in this country, when you look at the interests of this country, are not Conservative. I find it very difficult for any Prime Minister wishing to lead the whole of our country can entirely ignore the views of 48% of people who passionately do not want to see Brexit at all because they believe it is bad for their country. They cannot be ignored, it’s not only wrong constitutionally, I think politically it’s crazy. Those 48% of people are going to remember that they were completely ignored and they will remember that at the next election and for a very long time to come.

STEPHEN SACKUR

You seem to becoming very close to saying that this process, where of course the next Prime Minister is being chosen by between 120,000 and 160,000 Conservative members, and we know from all of the survey evidence that they are 97% white, they are an average age of 57 years old. You seem to be suggesting that for that to be the way of appointing Britain’s next Prime Minister, the man who will have to deal with the Brexit challenge, is not legitimate.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think you have to look at a number of other things as well. If you look at the electorate for this particular election, not only does it have the deficiencies that you suggest, because we are choosing a national leader, not just the leader of the Conservative Party, but the next Prime Minister. It’s not only a narrow electorate in the sense that you set out, but a very large part of that electorate appear to have joined the Conservative Party within recent months or within the last year.

I have not seen any great successes by the Conservative Party that should have created a flood of members coming into it over the last year. I wish I had, I really wish I had, but I haven’t. So you have to ask yourself why these people are coming in? They’re certainly not life-long Conservatives, they’re people who have flooded into the party recently and, from all one can gather, they have flooded into it because they wish to take a firm view on Brexit. They’re people in many cases, I suspect and I cannot know this, who have their boots in the Conservative Party but have their hearts in Brexit or UKIP. That is a very odd way to choose the next leader of the Conservative Party.

STEPHEN SACKUR

You haven’t used the word, but if they are entryists or infiltrators, then one can only assume that you believe that whatever happens in the leadership election that the only genuine way to put this before the people is to go for a General Election before Brexit happens.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

No, I don’t think a General Election would at all be the right way for several reasons, and for practical reasons for the country. If we had a General Election at the moment we would not get what ideally we would need, which is a Government with a clear majority that can determine its policies, argue it in Parliament and have a majority to carry its policies out.

If we had a General Election, we would get a very fragmented Parliament indeed, with some very curious people being elected and the Government in an ever weaker position than this Government is currently in with because of its lack of a majority and that is not in anyone’s interests and certainly not in the interests of good government in the United Kingdom. So a General Election would be a very bad idea from the point of view of everyone in the country.

STEPHEN SACKUR

Surely, as Jeremy Hunt has put it, the most fundamental requirement right now is to show the British people that having given them the decision to make on whether to remain or leave the European Union, that decision, in the referendum of 2016, will be followed through on by those who govern the country.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Parliamentarians are in an extraordinarily difficult position that we have not seen before. I would guess that 70% to 80% of Parliament believe that Brexit is a disaster, that we should not be leaving Europe and that it’s damaging to our country and damaging to our future. But they feel hamstrung in carrying their conscience and their belief through to action because of the result of the referendum.

STEPHEN SACKUR

A referendum which David Cameron, who ordered it, said would be the once in a lifetime opportunity for the people.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

You can deal with that point, call it semantic or not, or you can deal with what is in the interests of the people of our country and their future. It’s not just people who believe we should remain like me who say it’s going to be a disaster. The World Bank do, the IMF do, Moody’s ratings do, the British Government does.

The British Government itself is saying that we will be worse off. We will lose in growth, there will be innumerable problems and I have never seen a time in history when a British Government was in a position in permitting a policy to proceed that they know will be bad for the working people of this country. Which is the primary responsibility of Parliament? I would argue, however unpopular it may be, that the primary responsibility of Parliament is to speak for the well-being of the country. If they have to say to the country ‘you were misled during the referendum campaign’, as they were repeatedly day after day, ‘you were misled and we now know the facts of what Brexit means and therefore you should have the opportunity to reflect’, now that is really what I would like to see Parliament do.

STEPHEN SACKUR

Why will you not accept the word from both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt that they will go back to Brussels and they will negotiate a better deal that the one Theresa May got. Precisely because they are serious and they are genuine about leaving the European Union by 31 October, even if the EU does not give them a better deal. With that negotiating strategy in hand, they say, they will get a better deal. You know the EU well, they always in the end make last minute compromises.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

They’re not going to compromise in the withdrawal agreement itself.

STEPHEN SACKUR

With respect, how do you know?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

They’re a rules based organisation and in the past when they altered at the last moment they were a much smaller European Union. They’re now, even without Britain, 27 nation states who would have to agree to a change. They will not all agree to a change, particularly with the problems with the Irish backstop. The point with the Irish backstop is not just trade. The true point underlying it is blood.

The troubles in Northern Ireland started with the murder of customs officers at that very same customs point. Go and ask the Northern Ireland Police Service, go and ask the Taoiseach, there are plenty of people both on the nationalist side and on the republican side who would be only too willing to have an excuse to restart violence. Let us not just concentrate on one aspect of that. That is a huge impediment,

I spent a large number of years of my time in Downing Street beginning the Irish Peace Process, which to his eternal credit Tony Blair picked up, carried on and finished with an excellent final deal with the Good Friday Agreement. You cannot start infringing that, you cannot risk returning to the problems we had before when over 3,000 people were killed.

STEPHEN SACKUR

I have never seen you so exercised, frankly so passionate and even angry. Are you at a point where you are prepared to say to your own party, which you say you’ve been in since your sixteenth birthday, that if the party elects a Prime Minister who in the end commits to leaving on October 31 with no deal if necessary, are you saying that ‘I will recommend to Conservative MPs that they bring down that Prime Minister?’

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I don’t necessarily think that is the way that it is going to evolve. There are some things, such as the absurd suggestion of bypassing Parliament by proroguing it for example, there are things like that which simply must not be permitted to happen. I have no personal ambitions, I’m not in politics, I’m not going back into politics and there’s nothing the Government can offer me. I’m not interested in any of that.

All I am doing is saying that on behalf of the people who do not have a voice to speak, the 48%, that what we are doing is bad for the future of our country and Parliament, and I’m not in Parliament, Parliament must decide how to protect that. It’s not for me to tell Parliament how to do it.

STEPHEN SACKUR

People would be interested if you were prepared to give a pathway to thwarting and blocking a no-deal Brexit. Surely it is incumbent upon you as a former leader of the Conservative Party and a former Conservative Prime Minister to say, whether like Ken Clarke, a former colleague of yours, and Dominic Grieve, you believe it would be right, if it comes to it, for Conservatives to vote no confidence in a Prime Minister and a Government which is committed to a no-deal Brexit.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think I said earlier quite clearly, if you have to choose between your country and your party, then you choose your country. That applies in all circumstances with none put to one side.

STEPHEN SACKUR

So you would leave the Conservative Party?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

No, no, it’s not a question of me leaving the Conservative Party. I’m a centre-right one nation Conservative, I have been since my sixteenth birthday. I haven’t moved. I’m not moving from the Conservative Party, if they move away from me then that is a choice they can make, but I’m not moving. I shall stay where I am inside the Conservative Party fighting for the sort of Conservative Party that genuinely is one nation, that genuinely does not cast aside the interests of 48% of the people in this country without reflecting upon what their needs and concerns are.

That is the sort of Conservative Party that I wish to see and there are many Conservative MPs inside the House of Commons who feel exactly as I do. It is not the whole of the Conservative Party who are absolutely obsessed with the question of Brexit, it is a portion of the Conservative Party.

STEPHEN SACKUR

As you say that, I am so mindful of your own Premiership and that moment when in 1993, in an unguarded moment, you referred to some of your Cabinet colleagues who were the diehard Euro sceptics as “bastards”. It seems to me that, here we are at this very point, where you are having to acknowledge that “the bastards” have won. They now represent your party.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Firstly, it was entirely wrong of me even privately to call them bastards, true, but wrong. As far as today is concerned, there are more of them, some of them are the same people. But, there are more of them.

STEPHEN SACKUR

Can I add one detail? This adds to the pressure upon you. 60 something percent of Conservatives told Yougov, a credible survey, of the party membership that they regard Brexit as more important than the survival of the party itself.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

What do they mean by Brexit? On the day on which the Brexit referendum was held there were opinion polls saying that majority of people, including Conservatives, actually wanted to stay inside the single market. The interpretation of what Brexit is is an interpretation which was not made in the referendum. Nobody in the referendum said ‘we will have a no deal Brexit’, nobody said that, not Boris Johnson, not Michael Gove, not anyone. That is something which emerged after the Brexit result when they began to harden their position and that position has been hardened and hardened ever since.

The right-wing of the Conservative Party, the anti-Europeans more accurately, will push and push and push, whenever there’s a concession and whenever they’re appeased, they’ll push a little more. The idea of a completely no deal Brexit was not what people thought they were voting for. Whatever some people may say now, that was not on the referendum ballot paper, it was not what the referendum was about and it was not what people thought on the day on which they voted.

If Parliament had actually picked up that point straight away and said ‘you have said we must leave this because you dislike the bureaucracy, you wish to restore the sovereignty or whatever it may be, we are leaving the political elements of the European Union, but we will keep the single market that Margaret Thatcher entered into in the 1980s because it is in our economic interests to do so”, and that would have been a fairer reflection, a more accurate reflection of what most people had in their minds, I believe, at the time they voted.

STEPHEN SACKUR

You believe your view. I now want to invite you to look at a bigger horizon. Politics across the world is changing, look at Donald Trump’s style of politics in the United States. Boris Johnson has just said that if he is elected as British Prime Minister, he will make the country the greatest country in the world. That sort of message appears to be the style of politics, the sort of message, that people want. They want energy, they want positivity, they are fed up with people like you telling them of the problems of Brexit.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

They might also want some indication of how it is to be done, might they not? To just simply say that ‘I’m going to make this the greatest country in the world’ is fine, we would all like to do that, nobody could possibly object to that as an aim. But it’s a very curious way to do it, to leave the richest, largest free trade market that the world has ever seen.

In the last period, when we’ve been saying how we can become global Britain and have failed ourselves to negotiate new trade deals or even set them up for negotiation, the European Union has now done a free trade deal with Japan, a free trade deal with Canada, a free trade with Brazil and the rest of Mercosur. All of which Steven, we would have benefitted from had we had remained inside the European Union.

That trade is the sort of thing that makes prosperity to make us the greatest country in the world. We have thrown away over 50 trade deals across the world totalling 70 countries and now these big new ones. It will take us ten years, twenty years, thirty years to replicate that.

STEPHEN SACKUR

I can hear Boris Johnson in my ear saying ‘why are you so negative about the prospects for a Britain outside of the European Union? We can get a great deal with the United States, we can make trade deals across the world which will work for our economy. Our future is bright is outside of the EU.’

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I am not obsessed with Boris Johnson, and with great respect, you seem to be. I do not believe that you make this country great by diminishing its relationship with the rest of the world. We are diminishing our relationship by leaving the European Union.

Take one example. In terms of foreign policy, whenever we’ve made a foreign policy démarche of any sort, the world looks at Britain and on one side they see our long-term relationship with the United States as their closest ally, and on the other side, they see us as a leading member of the European Union of five hundred million people. Diplomatically we marched out into the world with a billion and a half of the most organised people in the world metaphorically at our sides when we did so.

We now leave the European Union at exactly the moment that America is pivoting away from the west, away from the UK and towards Asia, for reasons that are perfectly proper from an American point of view. Not because they are disinterested in us, but because there is a bigger market there and it’s in their interests to do so. So suddenly, Britain on its own is shorn of the two great bulwarks of its foreign policy, its relationship with America and its relationship with the European Union.

I spend a large part of my life travelling the world. Go and speak to business leaders and politicians privately around the world, and they will tell you, and it breaks my heart to say it, but they will say that we have diminished ourselves and our prospects by leaving the European Union. And to be brutally frank, there’s a very large part of the world that think the pragmatic, cool and to be trusted Britons have taken leave of their senses in the policy they are now following.

If you want to know why I feel passionately about it, that is why. I would like to be part of the greatest nation in the world, but you don’t become the greatest nation in the world by running away from the rest of the world and breaking your connections with them. It’s absolutely the wrong way to proceed and simply to say ‘we’re going to be the greatest nation in the world’, without any indication of how you’re going to do it, and please don’t feed me the pap about how we’re going to do all these wonderful trade details.

The Prime Minister went to India on Monday and said I’d like a trade deal, and on Wednesday said we don’t want any Indians to come to the UK and that was the end of that discussion.

STEPHEN SACKUR

We have to end this discussion right there.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Thank you.