When he was Prime Minister, John Major found his predecessor Margaret Thatcher to be an ‘intolerable’ backseat driver. Yet no matter how polite he has been to his successors as Conservative leaders, he hasn’t been all that helpful to the two who’ve ended up, by hook or by crook, becoming Prime Minister. Previously he has criticised David Cameron’s approach to governing, and today he raised serious concerns about the prospect of a pact between the Conservatives and the DUP. Speaking to the World at One, Sir John said:
‘Let me make several points about it. I am concerned about the deal, I am wary about it, I am dubious about it, both for peace process reasons but also for other reasons as well. That said, all my life I’ve been a Conservative, I very much want Mrs May to succeed as Prime Minister and to stay as Prime Minister and I understand why she wishes to shore up her Parliamentary position. That is entirely understandable and I sympathise. But, but – my main concern certainly is the peace process. A fundamental part of that peace process is that the UK government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests in Northern Ireland.’
He added that:
‘The danger is that however much any government tries, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal at Westminster with one of the Northern Ireland parties. And you never know in what unpredictable way events will turn out and we cannot know if that impartiality is going to be crucial at some stage in the future.’
This isn’t just unhelpful for May in the sense that Major is undermining the only route she really has left open to her in relying on the DUP in some way. It is also unhelpful in terms of timing: she has already embarked on talks about a confidence-and-supply agreement, and is now being told by a predecessor that anything so formal might undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland. Sir John is not raising an entirely hypothetical situation here, given the reaction of Sinn Fein to the Westminster discussions has been to insist that Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is unfit to chair the talks to restore the power-sharing executive at Stormont.
To agree with Major’s advice would involve leading the DUP up the garden path with talks about what the Tories could offer them, before dropping them at the last minute and asking if they wouldn’t mind voting for the Queen’s Speech and the Budget anyway. It therefore undermines a seriously undermined Prime Minister anyway, though Sir John Major may feel that there is no greater embodiment of a decision that put party interest ahead of that of the country in calling the election in the first place than there is in a damaged Northern Ireland peace process.