One of the key threads running through The Crown has always been the relationship between the Queen and the Prime Minister. In previous years, John Lithgow has played Winston Churchill, Jason Watkins has played Harold Wilson, and Gillian Anderson has played Margaret Thatcher.
With the dawn of the 1990s in The Crown Season 5, the series introduces another new Prime Minister: Jonny Lee Miller’s take on John Major. A former banker turned MP, Major was Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming Prime Minister himself, serving for seven years before losing a General Election to Labour’s Tony Blair.
Here’s everything you need to know about John Major ahead of The Crown Season 5.
What was John Major doing before he was an MP?
John Major was born in Surrey in 1943, moving to Brixton in 1955 when his family encountered financial difficulties. He left school in 1959 with three O-Level passes, and didn’t attend university (making him, alongside Winston Churchill and James Callaghan, one of only eight Prime Ministers who didn’t go on to higher education after secondary school).
He moved between jobs for a while – spending a brief period selling garden ornaments, and at one point being rejected from a job as a bus driver because he was too short – before eventually becoming a banker in 1965. Major worked as a banker until the late 1970s, running unsuccessfully as an MP twice during the decade.
When did John Major become Prime Minister?
John Major was elected to Parliament in 1979, the same year that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. He held a number of junior positions during the early 1980s, and by 1984 was considered something of a rising star within the Conservative Party; he became the Minister for State for Health and Social Security in 1986, which saw him begin to develop a greater public profile. It was later revealed that, between 1984 and 1988, Major had conducted an affair with fellow Conservative MP Edwina Currie.
In 1987, he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, making him the first MP elected in 1979 to join the Cabinet; in 1989, he was promoted again, and made Foreign Secretary by Thatcher (who had by this point long-regarded Major as a close ally). He was only in that role for a short time, however – a few months after Major was appointed Foreign Secretary, Nigel Lawson resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in protest at what he perceived as Thatcher’s overreliance on her chief economic advisor. Major replaced Lawson as Chancellor, going from a junior ministerial position to the most senior Cabinet role in a little over two years.
As Chancellor, Major’s focus was mostly consumed by questions of Europe and whether or not to join the new European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Internal party debates over the UK’s relationship with the European Union eventually prompted Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s pro-Europe Deputy PM, to resign from Cabinet (which was referenced in the final episode of The Crown Season 4). That in turn lead former Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine to challenge Thatcher for leadership of the Conservative Party – though Thatcher won this initial contest, it was too close for her to meaningfully sustain any authority, and she announced her intention to resign.
Major then stood in the subsequent leadership ballot. With 185 votes, a little under half of the Conservative Parliamentary party, he’d performed significantly better than opponents Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd (Major’s successor as Foreign Secretary). They both dropped out as a result, and Major officially became Prime Minister on 28 November 1990.
What happened while he was Prime Minister?
John Major was Prime Minister for a little under 7 years, entering office in November 1990 and leaving in May 1997. As Prime Minister, Major fought only one General Election, which took place in May 1992; to the surprise of many, the Conservative Party won a fourth term in office, returning with 336 seats. While that result left the Conservatives as the largest parliamentary party – and, with an unusually large turnout, meant that the Conservatives received the most votes any UK political party ever has at a General Election – it still saw them lose 40 seats, leaving Major significantly weaker as Prime Minister.
During John Major’s premiership, the Royal family entered a period of turbulence; the early 1990s saw the breakdown of three royal marriages, with Prince Andrew and Princess Anne both getting divorced. Major announced Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s separation to the House of Commons in 1992, making the first public confirmation of the end of their relationship.
On the international stage, Major’s time in office was defined largely by debates over Europe and the lingering effects of the Cold War. Major oversaw the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, the return of Hong Kong to China, and met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on a number of occasions; in 1992, Major and Yeltsin signed the first UK/Russia friendship treaty since 1776, paving the way for an official royal visit to Moscow in 1994.
In 1995, facing internal criticism from Conservative MPs in the face of a growing Labour poll lead, Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party to initiate another leadership election; Major stood in the subsequent contest and beat his sole opponent by a comfortable margin, quietening his critics for a short while.
When did he leave office?
By 1997, through a combination of defections and by-election losses, the Conservative Party had lost its majority. Major called an election in March 1997, scheduling it for May – at six weeks, the campaign was an unusually long one, and ended up drawing attention to divisions within the Conservative Party. (There were also accusations that the election was scheduled in such a way to delay the release of a long-promised report into the conduct of a Major ally.)
Labour won a landslide majority in 1997, ending both the Major ministry and an 18-year streak of Conservative rule. The Conservatives were left with just 178 MPs, and Major resigned immediately; he spent seven weeks as Leader of the Opposition while the Conservatives chose his replacement. William Hague became the new Conservative Leader in June, and Major remained in Parliament as a back-bench MP until the next election in 2001.
Where is John Major now?
Since leaving Parliament, Major has served on the boards of various right-wing charities and think tanks (as well as his local cricket club). Despite brief suggestion he might run for Mayor of London in 2008, Major has never returned to front line politics; he occasionally makes interventions, having supported the Remain campaign and calling on Boris Johnson to resign more than once.
Perhaps of particular interest to viewers of The Crown is that, when Princess Diana died in 1997, Major (a few months after losing the General Election) was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry with responsibility for their legal affairs. As a result, Major was the only politician invited to Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018.
The Crown Season 5 arrives on Netflix on Wednesday 9 November. You can read more of our coverage of The Crown here, find our review of the series here, and listen to our podcast episode discussing it here.