John Major’s track record on Tory scandals

Former PM’s government was rocked by affairs and the cash-for-questions saga

John Major
(Image credit: Getty Images )

John Major has said Boris Johnson and his advisers “broke lockdown law” during parties held in No. 10, accusing the PM of overseeing a culture in which staff feel they “need not obey the rules”.

In a speech at the Institute for Government think tank, the former Conservative prime minister said the UK’s reputation was “being shredded” by the disorder on Downing Street and that “we are weakening our influence in the world”.

BBC political correspondent Helen Catt said Major has “repeatedly criticised” Johnson, adding that “the fact he is doing so again isn’t going to come as a surprise”. Meanwhile, other critics pointed out that his tenure as Tory prime minister was rocked by a series of scandals.

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Chequered record

The Daily Mail said Major “left the door open for allegations of hypocrisy” in 1993 when he launched a campaign promising to go “back to basics”, only for his government to be hit by scandals over “extra-marital liaisons and paid lobbying”.

In 1992, Major’s culture minister David Mellor faced a series of claims by actress Antonia de Sancha, with whom he had been having an affair. As uncomfortable revelations emerged, Major stood by his minister, who later quit after a financial scandal.

The cash-for-questions saga emerged two years later, when it was claimed that Tory MPs had taken payments from controversial businessman Mohammad Al-Fayed to ask questions in the House of Commons. As pressure grew on the government, Neil Hamilton resigned as a junior minister.

Also in 1994, the Tory MP Stephen Milligan was found dead in his house in west London, apparently self-strangled during an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. The Daily Mail said that he was “naked, save for a pair of women’s stockings and suspenders, plus a black bin-liner over his head”.

In 1995, The Guardian reported that Jonathan Aitken, then Treasury chief secretary, had allowed the Saudi royal family to pay his £1,000 hotel bill at the Ritz in Paris.

Although Aitken sued the newspaper – boasting he would “cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play” – he later admitted to perjury charges and was jailed for 18 months.

Glass houses

The Telegraph’s sketch writer Madeline Grant said that “hypocrisy prevailed’ in Major’s speech, citing his claim that it was “unprecedented” when the government “broke the law by proroguing parliament, presumably to avoid debates on Brexit”.

Major himself had prorogued Parliament before the 1997 general election, she said, “presumably to avoid publishing the ‘cash for questions’ report”.

Speaking to the BBC last year, Major attempted to draw a distinction between the scandals that hit his government and those rocking Johnson’s reign.

“The striking difference is this: in the 1990s I set up a committee to tackle this sort of behaviour,” he said. “Over the last few days we have seen today’s government trying to defend this sort of behaviour.”

But Major was hit by a scandal of his own when, in 2002, former minister Edwina Currie revealed she had had a four-year affair with Major. The revelation sparked an infamous News of the World front page with the headline: “My 3-hour sex romps with Major.”

“It is the one event in my life of which I am most ashamed and I have long feared would be made public,” he said at the time.

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