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Wednesday, August 11, 1999 Published at 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK


UK Politics

Downing Street's Greek tragedy

Margaret Thatcher and John Major fell out when he won power

By BBC World Service Political Reporter Jonny Dymond

Two tantalising glimpses have emerged of how John Major viewed his time in government: his accusation that Margaret Thatcher's behaviour was "intolerable" and his remark that his premiership was like a "Greek tragedy".

Conservative politicians will be wondering whether that's the worst of it. Given the tumult that was John Major's term in office, there is probably a lot more where that came from.

John Major was carefully groomed by Margaret Thatcher to succeed her. He was propelled through a succession of the most senior Cabinet jobs toward the end of the Thatcher era.

But after she was ejected from the premiership by her party, Mrs Thatcher seemed unable to let go of government, while Mr Major desperately needed to establish himself personally and politically with the public.


[ image: John Redwood: His leadership challenge increased tensions]
John Redwood: His leadership challenge increased tensions
It was always going to be tough following one of Britain most charismatic post war politicians. But Mrs - now Lady - Thatcher did not help. She let it be known that she thought she could exercise influence from without - telling party workers that she would "make a very good back seat driver".

She derided the idea that Major might have a coherent political philosophy of his own - "There's no such thing as Majorism," she told the readers of one American magazine.

But it was when he resigned from the party leadership and challenged his critics to "put up or shut up" that Lady Thatcher's behaviour became as he describes it "intolerable".

John Redwood, then the secretary of state for Wales, contested the leadership race, and with it the position of UK Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher said that both Mr Redwood and John Major were good candidates.

It is clear that Mr Major regards this as little short of treachery. Lady Thatcher describes the way that she was dumped by her closest colleagues as "treachery with a smile". Mr Major is no less bitter.

Mr Major's time as prime minister was dominated by open splits between pro and anti-Europeans within his Cabinet. Those at the highest reaches of government would brief journalists in detail.

Mr Major also bitterly regretted inheriting a weak economy with high inflation. It left little or no space for expenditure on the social projects that might have allowed him to create a form of caring Conservatism.


[ image: The Conservative Party conference could see recriminations]
The Conservative Party conference could see recriminations
For much of the time after Britain's ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, his government was perceived to be at the mercy of events beyond his control. It is perhaps for this reason that he describes his time in office as a "Greek Tragedy" - events seemingly pre-determined, with the participants in the drama characterised as hapless onlookers.

Mr Major's memoirs will be published in October, as the Conservative Party conference debates its new policy plans, 'Agenda for Britain'.

The current leader William Hague has been trying to draw the curtain over the events of the past decade.

He has managed to turn the issue of Europe - which used to highlight the splits in his party - into something of a vote winner. Party managers will hope that attention will focus on the party's attempts at renewal, rather than rancorous infighting.

But if John Major has decided to spill the beans, there will be a lot of clearing up to do.



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