Talk of political comebacks is rife in contemporary British politics. But there is one political return that John Major seems particularly keen to head off.
Yesterday, the former prime minister launched a damning attack on Boris Johnson and his handling of Brexit. Pulling no punches, he explained that the Northern Ireland protocol had been agreed upon by Johnson’s administration despite the knowledge that it was unworkable. The scathing critique comes just as the 25th anniversary of the singing of the Good Friday Agreement fast approaches.
“That must be the first agreement in history that was signed by people who decided it was useless in the first place,” he said. While Major may not have cited Johnson by name, he outlined to a Westminster committee hearing on the effectiveness of the institutions of the 1998 Good Friday agreement how shocked he was that the protocol was accepted. The very same one that Johnson had used to advertise his co-called “oven-ready” Brexit deal during the 2019 election. So perhaps no prizes for those who guess who this attack was directed toward.
Unsurprisingly for a politician who has argued a pro-Europe stance and voted Remain, Major also spoke about how Brexit was a “colossal mistake”. He explained how he saw the world as being divided into three key power blocs. “There is America, there is China and there is the European Union. We should be in Europe,” he said. But, he said, this decision was worsened by the agreement to impose checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain
Major was not stingy with his shots – he also took aim at Liz Truss in the midst of her somewhat delusional comeback, calling her threats to override the Brexit agreement when she was prime minister ill-judged.
“Even if the protocol bill was wrong that does seem to be a strange way to proceed because that sort of behaviour is pretty unwise. We, the British, would not respond to threats of that sort. Why do we think that the European Union would?”
But all of this fails to answer the question; why now? Major is more than likely out to silence any growing chatter of a Johnson comeback, a prospect that is anticipated to only gain momentum should Rishi Sunak’s government have an unfavourable result at the upcoming local elections. In the meantime, Major’s assessment only adds to Sunak’s problem of still needing to reach an agreement with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol as well as restoring the executive which has failed to meet in a year.
The Good Friday Agreement hands a veto to the largest unionist and nationalist parties and since February the DUP, the largest unionist party, has boycotted the executive in protest against the specifics of the protocol. Major suggests an update is in order.
“If one reviewed it, one might find a few things one would update,” he said. “Because I’d like to say, 25 years on, a generation that grew up in peace will not have the same emotional baggage as those who had to live through a huge and horrible period of violence… we do need to look forward and see what we can do.”
Major’s verdict also isn’t in isolation. Just last week, Simon Hoare, the chair of the Northern Ireland Committee, said that the government should hand power to the next-largest unionist party to solve the stalemate.
This does not seem likely. Nor does it appear likely that Major’s suggested review will be undertaken with Sunak evidently eager to storm forwards on all things Brexit, be it the Retained EU Laws bill or the need to quash any debates of rejoining the EU.
But with not one, not two but three former tenants of Number 10 causing him headaches, Sunak could now find this an increasingly impossible task.