For someone so dull, John Major manages to provoke passionate reactions. Among those who welcomed his latest intervention in the great Brexit debate he is hailed as a wise and respected grandfather to the nation, speaking sense at a time when the UK is running towards to a cliff edge.
In contrast, he is seen by critics as a relic – a loser who campaigned for Remain and, just like Tony Blair, can’t accept the result. Iain Duncan Smith described him as “bitter and backward looking” while fellow Tory MP Nadine Dorries dismissed the former PM as an “irrelevant, sad, adulterous, hypocritical and pompous has-been”. While such a broadside hardly counts as considered criticism, it does highlight the very divisions about which Major was expressing concern.
“It’s not arrogant or brazen or elitist to express concern about our future after Brexit,” he said. This is true, of course, but he went on to describe the UK’s vote to leave the EU as “a historic mistake” and this does sound rather elitist and more than a bit arrogant.
Major’s central criticism of government policy towards Brexit is that “obstacles are brushed aside...whilst opportunities are inflated...”, this analysis oversimplifies the government’s position. In fact, Brexit secretary David Davis has urged cabinet colleagues to brace themselves for the difficulty ahead, including the possibility that the UK might leave the EU without a deal having been reached.
The Prime Minister, the chancellor, the defence secretary and the home secretary all backed Remain. They agreed with Major during the referendum campaign. The difference is, they’ve moved on. They’re also joined around the cabinet table by ministers who campaigned passionately to leave the EU on the basis that they believe it will ultimately pay dividends.
Brexit has to be delivered and ministers mean it when they say “we’re going to make a success of it”. Blair, Major and indeed George Osborne, may be waiting for the moment down the road when they can say “I told you so” but those in office today can hardly be expected to begin negotiations with the EU by echoing Major’s nervousness and trepidation. To make Brexit a success, pragmatism, humility and diplomacy will be necessary – but so too will be confidence, optimism and courage.