Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – 10 July 2019

Below is the text of the interview with Sir John Major which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 10 July 2019.


MISHAL HUSAIN

Sir John Major, former Prime Minister, who is backing Jeremy Hunt for the leadership, is in our Westminster studio. Good morning Sir John.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Good morning.

MISHAL HUSAIN

This is the first time that we’re speaking to you during this leadership contest and I wondered what you feel about it in the round and what you think it has told us about your party.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

To be brutally honest, I don’t think it has been terribly illuminating and in some ways it hasn’t been very appetising. The way in which some of the candidates who have been eliminated seemed to have changed their position in order to join up with one candidate or the other hasn’t been something I think that the public would have looked on with great favour.

MISHAL HUSAIN

Who are you thinking of?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I’m bothered about the two final candidates.

MISHAL HUSAIN

And you’re supporting Jeremy Hunt?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I am supporting Jeremy Hunt, but let me make it clear at the outset that I am not of his campaign, I am not here today to speak for Mr. Hunt, I am here to speak for myself about the campaign, about Brexit and the incredible risks that I think now lie ahead of us.

MISHAL HUSAIN

I understand what you say about not being part of Jeremy Hunt’s campaign, but I wonder whether you’re supporting him because of his position or because he is not Boris Johnson, because you have said that you could not support anyone who was part of the Brexit campaign, which in your words ‘misled the country’.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

That is true, but I would have supported Jeremy Hunt in any event. I think that he has the serious attitude to Government that I think is necessary. I think he does look at the facts before he reaches a decision, I think he looks at reality and not public reaction and I think it’s very important in a Prime Minister that they do that.

MISHAL HUSAIN

Let’s talk about the key points of difference, particularly those which we heard about last night in the TV debate, one of them being their attitude to proroguing Parliament. Now, Boris Johnson’s reason for refusing to rule that out was because he said that it would be bizarre to take anything off the table, to weaken the UK’s position in negotiations.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think that the idea of proroguing Parliament is utterly and totally unacceptable from any British Parliamentarian or democrat. Let’s strip away the jargon of proroguing and contemplate on what this actually means. What it means, and Prime Minister Johnson presumably, because he cannot persuade Parliament to agree with his policy will close down Parliament so that he can bypass it until his policy comes into operation.

Nobody has done that since King Charles in the 1640s and it didn’t end well for him, and it shouldn’t end well. You cannot and should not bypass Parliament in this fashion and I cannot imagine how anyone can conceivably think that is right.

There is a secondary point to that as well as in order to close down Parliament, the Prime Minister would have to go to Her Majesty the Queen and ask for her permission to prorogue. If her First Minister asks for that permission then it is almost inconceivable that the Queen will do anything other than grant it. She’s advised by her First Minister and she is then in the midst of a constitutional controversy that no serious politician should put the Queen in the middle of.

I think that this is completely and utterly against Parliamentary tradition and against the way in which our Government should work. If that were to happen I think that there would be a queue of people who would seek judicial review. The Queen’s decision cannot be challenged in law, but the Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen can, I believe, be challenged in law and I, for one, would be prepared to go and seek judicial review to prevent Parliament being bypassed.

I served in Parliament for over twenty years, I’m very proud to have done so, I have huge admiration for our Parliamentary traditions and I am not going to stand by and see them disregarded in this fashion. It is utterly and completely the wrong way to proceed.

MISHAL HUSAIN

You would seek an immediate judicial review of a Prime Minister’s decision to ask the Queen to prorogue Parliament in these circumstances?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

That is correct.

MISHAL HUSAIN

In terms of her own position, you are essentially saying that she would be honour bound to act on the request of her Prime Minister, but the difficulty then is that there is a competing democratic mandate, which is that we would know a Prime Minister is doing that because they can’t get what they want through Parliament.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

That is the reason that the Prime Minister would be doing it, in order to pass a policy that is hugely controversial and is certainly opposed by a vast majority of people in Parliament. The vast number of MPs are perfectly well aware that Brexit is a very bad idea for the future of the United Kingdom and the well-being of its business and citizens, but they feel hamstrung by the result of the referendum. The Prime Minister would be bypassing Parliament and that is simply not acceptable.

MISHAL HUSAIN

Do you think that Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would actually be prepared to do that?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I can only take him at his word, perhaps he’s not telling the truth. That is certainly what he has said and he has repeatedly refused to rule it out. It’s a very easy thing to say no to, ‘no, I am not going to try and bypass Parliament’, but Mr. Johnson has failed to do so. I would be delighted if he said later today that ‘I have reflected, it is a completely inappropriate way to proceed, I will not bypass Parliament’ and that would be the end of the matter. Until he says that it is a live risk based on what he will not say.

MISHAL HUSAIN

He should say that should he? The way that he is declining to say that is essentially saying that he doesn’t want to get into it is because we are going to again be in a state of negotiation with the EU and this is not the time to get into that.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

There is no conceivable justification, wherever we are, to close down Parliament to bypass its sovereignty. I seem to recall that the Brexiteers, led by Mr. Johnson, actually campaigned in the referendum for the sovereignty of Parliament. If they’re concerned about the sovereignty of Parliament they can’t be concerned for the sovereignty of parliament except when it is inconvenient to Mr. Johnson.

MISHAL HUSAIN

On your first point of objection to the idea that it’s wrong to bypass Parliament, in 1997, you were accused by Labour of effectively setting the date of that election to suit yourself because there was a forthcoming report about cash for questions. That was the accusation that you were bringing the General Election forward and having that report published after the election.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Mishal, I didn’t bring the election forward. We carried the election until almost the very last date and Labour criticised us for that.

MISHAL HUSAIN

It was nineteen days earlier than it could have been.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Nineteen days right at the end of the date that we could have had. The Labour charge was one of many absurd charges they made in order to undermine our position as part of their General Election campaign.

MISHAL HUSAIN

What do you think then is the most likely scenario that we are going to face with Brexit in the autumn?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I wish I knew because we hear and see so many conflicting things. What I am absolutely clear about is that rushing to an artificial date on 31 October could be disastrous if people are not ready, if business is not ready, if individuals are not ready and the corporate sector collectively is not ready.

It is an artificial date and it could lead to a great deal of chaos. The argument that it will bring things to a conclusion is, to a substantial extent, a bogus argument. You can bring a business difficulty to a conclusion by going bankrupt, but it’s not the conclusion that you’d wish to have. We need to put the country in the right position if we’re to have Brexit with the minimal of difficulty.

It will be difficult in any event, but this date of 31 October has a great deal more to do with the election of the Conservative Party leader than it does for the interests of the country and that is the wrong way round. The interests of the country must come first, before the interests of the Conservative Party and before the interests of any candidate in that election.

MISHAL HUSAIN

But it is the members of the Conservative Party who are going to make this decision now which matters to the entire country.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

But that is exactly the point.

MISHAL HUSAIN

I appreciate what you’re saying about the interests of the country being at stake, but your own party is under so much pressure now from the Brexit Party. We could see that in the results of the European elections and we can see that in people who go to their rallies and say that they used to vote for the Conservatives. Having failed to deliver Brexit according to the first timetable, your party could be far away from power and even towards an irreconcilable split if they do not deliver Brexit according to this second deadline.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Mishal, I have been in the Conservative Party for sixty years, I joined on my sixteenth birthday. But I’ll tell you this without any equivocation.  If you have to choose between what is in the interests of the country and its future or the short-term interests of the Conservative Party, then I would unhesitatingly choose the interests of the country as a whole.

A small number of Conservative members will choose who the next Prime Minister is. Assuming 70,000 votes will get the winning candidate, then that is one Conservative vote in the leadership election for every 175 Conservative votes in a General Election. So even the membership under any circumstances aren’t representative. It is unrepresentative of the Conservative vote, let alone the interests of the country. And I repeat the same point again, national leaders look first at the interests of the country, not first at the interests of themselves and appealing to a particular part of a small electorate for a particular post, however important that post may be.

MISHAL HUSAIN

Is Boris Johnson putting his own interests before the interests of the county?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

You must judge. I must say that it is my view that it is a mistake, and I put that mildly, to produce a fixed date in advance for spurious reasons for the date of which we must leave the European Union when we cannot be sure that we will be ready to do so.

MISHAL HUSAIN

Even the candidate that you’re supporting, Jeremy Hunt, seems pretty wedded to that date. It might go a little bit over, but he’s also prepared to prefer to leave the EU without a deal at that point rather than extend.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I said at the outset that I’m not here to speak for Jeremy, I’m here to speak for myself. Of the candidates available us, Jeremy is the one that I would have chosen at the beginning to be our Prime Minister. That does not mean that on every conceivable issue I am absolutely at one with any of the candidates, including the one I favour.

MISHAL HUSAIN

I wonder how you would deal, or how the Government and the next Prime Minister, should deal with the issue that arises from Sir Kim Darroch’s position as ambassador in Washington given the way that Mr. Trump has been talking about him. Again, last night Boris Johnson did not guarantee to keep the Ambassador in post if he became Prime Minister. How do you think this should be handled?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Kim Darroch is her Majesty’s ambassador more than the Government’s, that is his position. He was sent to Washington as a very senior, and I may say respected, diplomat to report his unvarnished views in private to the British Government, just as every American ambassador does about our country and every other country. Someone extremely malicious has leaked his view, but he was doing in Washington precisely and absolutely what he was instructed to do when he went there, which was to report fairly to the Government. If he does not do that, he is not doing his job. We really cannot have our ambassadors chosen by the host governments, however eminent those host governments may be. I know Kim Darroch, I know him to be a very able and distinguished civil servant and he should not be forced out of his office, however hostile they might be.

There is a secondary point which Mr. Johnson and everyone else should ponder. The whole of the diplomatic service, which is vital to the interests of this country, will have seen that one of their most senior diplomats was prepared to be thrown to the wolves because of the criticism of a non-British Government. I do not think that is good for the morale of the civil service and I do not think anybody who does that will endear themselves in obtaining the loyalty of the civil service in future. Loyalty is a two-way street and Mr. Darroch has not misbehaved, he has behaved exactly as he was expected to behave, indeed probably how he instructed to behave, and he deserves the support of the British Government.

MISHAL HUSAIN

Diplomacy requires access. We can already see that there was a meeting that should have taken place between Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, and Liam Fox which did not take place in Washington yesterday. Now that this has happened, how useful can Sir Kim Darroch be?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

He’s still a very able diplomat. I repeat the point that we cannot have our diplomats frozen out by Governments who are hostile to a private report that a diplomat has made. Once that happens it may happen elsewhere and you undermine the whole of our diplomacy. If that means a short-term freeze in relationships then that would be very unfortunate, because America are a very important ally of this country and always have been. But, none the less, there comes a time when principle has to come first and the principle that we stand by our ambassadors when they have acted entirely properly cannot be changed.

MISHAL HUSAIN

Finally, the cricket world cup. Famously you went to the cricket on the day that you left office in 1997. In some ways it doesn’t really feel that this country is hosting an international tournament at the moment because we haven’t been able to see those matches on terrestrial television. I imagine you’ve got to quite a few of them, but do you think it’s a shame that because we’re not seeing those matches in the way that we might see football matches that it’s not as much of the public consciousness as it should be.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think it’s a shame that cricket has for many years not been shown to the extent that it should be on terrestrial television. But my understanding is that the BBC declined to bid for the cricket as they said they didn’t have enough money to do so. It was an open bid and cricket, like most sports, requires money and that is the root of progress. That is what determined the decision and I’m very sorry about it, I would give a great deal to see cricket on terrestrial television and even more to see it reintroduced into mainstream secondary education for everyone, because I think it would do a great deal to boost our sport. I do regret that it isn’t there and I hope that your question means that the BBC will bid for it next time.

MISHAL HUSAIN

I’m not sure that I could answer that question, but apparently it didn’t bid for the highlights package because of scheduling issues I’m told!

SIR JOHN MAJOR

You’re very good at asking questions and I ask you just merely one and I wouldn’t wish you to dodge it!

MISHAL HUSAIN

Sir John Major, former Prime Minister, thank you very much.