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Sir John Major was the Conservative Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, during which time he faced several scandals within his party. As a result, Major faced a significant amount of political satire that targeted his political miscalculations and his supposed weak character.
What are sleaze scandals, what is political satire - and how did they contribute to the fall of conservatism in the '90s?
Before we look at the scandals that faced Major's Conservative party, let's define some key terms.
Sleaze is a broad umbrella term used for any number of actions by members of Parliament which bring their ethics into question. Examples include sexual misconduct, fiddling with expenses, and using a governmental position to gain favour.
A scandal is when these sleazy actions or events come to public attention and are met with outcry.
Major's Conservative party was already suffering from:
The sleaze scandals did little to help mounting discontent and damaged the traditional image that Sir John Major had tried to portray.
The "Back to Basics" campaign
At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, John Major announced the "Back to Basics" initiative. This campaign attempted to revive "traditional" family values in British society and reform the moral conduct of the public.
The irony was that Tory sleaze scandals continued to surface, demonstrating that despite the government's championing of public decency, they continued to behave immorally.
Before we dive into more detail about some of the most shocking scandals of the time, let's look at an overview.
|1990||Minister of State for Trade, Alan Clark, authorised the company Matrix Churchill to sell machine tools to Saddam Hussein despite the weaponry embargo at the time. There was public outcry when this was discovered, especially with the Gulf War looming.|
|1992||Alan Amos MP was arrested and cautioned for alleged public indecency on Hampstead Heath after being found with another man. He resigned later in the year.Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Mellor resigned in September following a series of allegations of sleaze. He engaged in extramarital affairs with actress Antonia de Sancha and accepted free holidays from Palestine Liberation and the rule of Abu Dhabi.|
|1993||Environment and Countryside Minister Tim Yeo resigned after fathering a "love child" with Conservative councillor Julia Stent. Yeo had previously voiced his support for the traditions of marriage.|
|1994||David Ashby MP was accused by his wife of leaving her for a man. The couple's marriage had already broken down, but his alleged homosexuality and infidelity made the news. In October, the "Cash for Questions" scandal was revealed whereby MPs David Tredinnick, Neil Hamilton, Graham Riddick and Tim Smith had accepted money from Mohamed Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrod's, to ask questions in the House of Commons.|
|1995||Defence Minister Jonathan Aitkin was exposed for doing secret deals with Saudi Arabian princes. He lobbied multimillion arms deals to go through Parliament whilst Said Ayas, his Saudi business partner, profited through commissions into a secret bank account.|
|1996||The Tory Junior Whip, David Willets, was accused of manipulating the "Cash for Questions" inquiry by saving Neil Hamilton from prosecution. He asked the Chairman of the Select Committee, Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, to suspend the investigation on grounds of libel and use the Tory majority of the committee to clear Hamilton's name. He resigned after lying to Parliament about the scandal.|
It was damaging enough that these scandals were common, but some cases became incredibly high profile.
There were several allegations of corruption, but the most significant scandal occurred in 1994, when The Guardian accused Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, the Corporate Financial Minister, of receiving bribes from Mohammed Al-Fayed - the billionaire owner of Harrods.
The front-page story alleged that political lobbyist Ian Greer had bribed two conservative MPs - Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith - on behalf of his client Fayed. What did he bribe them to do?
The Guardian alleged that the bribes were taken in exchange for commercial favours, specifically pushing questions into Parliament on behalf of Fayed, leading to the name 'cash for questions.'
Reportedly, one question in Parliament cost around £2000.
Paying for questions in Parliament would allow billionaires such as Fayed to advance their personal and business interests in government policy.
What happened as a result of this scandal?
Who was Martin Bell?
Martin Bell began his career as a BBC journalist and reporter in 1962 and won many awards for his coverage of international conflicts. In 1997, Bell announced he would stand as an independent MP in Tatton, Cheshire. Tatton had been a safe Tory seat for years and was held by Neil Hamilton at the time.
Following Hamilton's resignation after the "Cash for Questions" scandal, Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew their candidates in Tatton so that Bell would win the seat. This was organised by Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell and resulted in Bell becoming the first independent MP to win a seat in Parliament since 1951.
Bell's victory was representative of the damning effects of Tory sleaze during the '90s and heralded in Blair's Labour government after his success in the 1997 General Election.
Another such scandal occurred when Conservative MP Jeremy Wiggen attempted to use his influence to manipulate the system in 1995. Wiggen, the consultant for the caravan industry, tried to lobby for an amendment to a bill that directly affected the caravanning industry in another MP's name, Sebastian Coe.
Wiggen did so without Coe's knowledge to avoid being accused of pushing for the bill because of his personal and financial interests - this became known as the Cash for Amendments Scandal.
One of the more significant scandals during Major's era occurred in 1994, and unlike the other individualised scandals, this scandal was a larger government cover-up.
In the 1980s, Matrix Churchill - a British machine tools manufacturer - was accused of illegally supplying machines to the Iraqi government to create weapons.
The company came under fire as many reports suggested it was illegal for British companies to sell weapons or potential weapons to Iraq. However, the company had been allowed to sell these weapons to Iraq after obtaining government permission.
As a result, Sir Richard Scott, the Lord Justice of Appeal, conducted the 1994 Scott Inquiry. Scott had difficulty conducting this investigation as many of the required documents were withheld from him. However, Scott managed to produce an exhaustive report that revealed the government's attempts to cover up its actions.
Although the weapons trading occurred under Thatcher's rule, it damaged Major's reputation for two reasons:
Major spoke of a return to the basics - self-discipline, traditional values, respect for the law, and moral improvement. However, by the 1997 election, many members of his party had been involved in scandals to the contrary.
In fact, during Major's leadership, there were 12 sexual scandals involving MPs, and two cabinet leaders resigned due to affairs.
Such instances may not have landed as badly had Major not continually spoken of morality.
With the rampant scandals faced by the Tory party in the 90s came an onslaught of political satire.
Political satireA form of entertainment politics that uses humour in the form of literature, cartoons, television, and the wider media to poke fun at politics and politicians
Political satire is not always used to advance or influence a particular political agenda but to provide thought-provoking entertainment.
One example of political satire is the Private Eye, a British satirical magazine that has historically created parodies of British Prime Ministers since its creation in 1961. This magazine uses humour to convey the personality and style of leadership of Prime Ministers, MPs, and their governments, irrespective of political affiliations.
Although the magazine is humourous, it has a significant impact on mainstream culture, and the pieces often provoke thoughtful discussions.
Adrian Mole is a fictional protagonist in a collection of books created by Sue Townsend. The satirical books were written in the form of a diary from the perspective of Mole and initially followed the teenage character navigating teenhood and its struggles. However, the books later deviated and began to incorporate political themes.
The final three books saw Adrian as an adult, and these books used political satire to examine the events of the Gulf War, New Labour, the Iraq War, and other issues such as rampant unemployment in Britain.
Sir John Major was compared to Adrian Mole; even author Sue Townsend remarked that the first time she saw Major she immediately thought, "My God, that's Adrian Mole". Comparisons were generally because of Major's 'geeky' look and 'weak' character.
The comparisons of Major to Adrian Mole even led to the Private Eye creating a series called 'The Secret Diary of John Major (aged 47¾)', which cast Major as Adrian Mole. This satirical spoof was released weekly and characterised Major as a naive, childish, dull, and weak man who was the victim of Thatcher's puppeteering.
So, how did scandals contribute to the fall of the Conservative party?
The Back to Basics campaign
Major's 1993 speech effectively baited the British media into exposing any MPs that failed to uphold traditional values. The sex scandals exposed the government as untrustworthy.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life
The government created this committee in 1994 to make recommendations on ethical standards of behaviour. This committee promoted 7 behavioural principles that those tasked with governance should abide by:
However, incidents such as the Iraqi weapons scandal contradicted these.
Major's 1996 speech to the Conservative Political Centre
we want a criminal justice system which recognises that individuals have the power to fight crime – but are also responsible if they commit it.
Major's speech offered a hardline stance on crime, law, and punishment. To the public, the cash for questions and cash for amendments scandals exposed the double standards of the government as it seemed MPs could get away with bribery and corruption.
Although satire didn't directly lead to the fall of the Tory party it certainly played a big role in making the party appear foolish with Major as their witless and incompetent leader.
There have been comparisons between the scandals facing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the sleaze of the 90s, with many saying Johnson's scandals are far worse.
In November 2021, MP Owen Paterson resigned after lobbying Parliament in exchange for £500,000 from two known companies. The use of Paterson's governmental position in order to lobby Parliament on behalf of companies and gain personal profit echoes the "cash for questions" scandal of the 1990s.
Furthermore, the so-called "Partygate" scandal, which has seen many MPs, including the Prime Minister, fined for hosting and attending parties during lockdowns throughout the Coronavirus pandemic echoes the sleaze scandals of the 1990s. Johnson's government issued many regulations to control the pandemic, and yet he and other politicians broke these rules consistently. The hypocrisy of the current Tory government can be easily compared to Major's "Back to Basics" campaign whilst members of his government consistently behaved immorally.
Political satire is a form of entertainment politics that uses humour in the form of literature, cartoons, television, and the wider media to poke fun or advance political arguments. Political satire does not always need to be used to advance or influence a particular political advantage as it can be used solely for entertainment purposes.
One example of political satire is the Private Eye which is a British satirical magazine that has historically created parodies of British Prime Ministers since its creation in 1961. This magazine uses humour to convey the personality and style of leadership of Prime Ministers, MP and their governments.
A sleaze scandal is a publicised event where a member of parliament is accused of immoral actions. This can include illegally accepting bribes to lobby parliament or being involved in sexual misconduct, usually flagging their hypocrisy as an MP.
During John Major's time as Prime Minister (1990-97) of the Tory party there were many scandals. In 1992, Major announced the "Back to Basics" initiative which was calling for self restraint and decency in the British public. The Tory government was seen to be hypocritical due to the numerous examples of sleaze. The "cash for questions" scandal is one of the most infamous from this time, where Tories accepted bribes from Mohammed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrod's, in order to ask questions to parliament which would benefit the businessman.
What were the sleaze scandals?
The sleaze scandals were a series of egregious scandals that occurred in the 90s under Prime Minister Sir John Major's conservative government.
What was Neil Hamilton accused of?
Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, the Corporate Financial Minister, of receiving bribes from Mohammed Al Fayed, the billionaire owner of Harrods.
What was the Neil Hamilton Scandal named?
Cash for questions
How many MP's resigned under Sir John Major's government due to accusations of sexual scandals?
What did Jeremy Wiggen do?
Conservative MP Jeremy Wiggen, who was the consultant for the caravan industry, tried to lobby for an amendment to a bill that affected the caravanning industry in another MPs name, Sebastian Coe. Wiggen did so to avoid being accused of pushing for the bill because of his personal and financial interests.
What point did Sir John Major make in his 1996 speech to the Conservative Political Centre?
Major's speech offered a hardline stance on crime, law, and punishment, Major made it clear that crime was unacceptable in any situation.
How did Sir John Major's 1996 speech to the Conservative Political Centre impact public opinions on the Conservative Party?
The speech made the government appear untrustworthy because the cash for questions and cash for amendments exposed the double standards as it seemed to be acceptable for MPs to get away with borderline illegal, if not illegal acts of bribery and corruption.
What is political satire?
Political satire is a form of entertainment politics that uses humour in the form of literature, cartoons, television, and the wider media to poke fun of politics and politicians.
What heightened Sir John Major's features in political satire?
The scandals and failures of Major's and his government in the 90s significantly heightened the amount of satire at his expense.
How did the Secret Diary of John Major (aged 47¾) characterise Sir John Major?
This satirical spoof was released weekly and characterised Major as a naive, childish, dull, and weak man, who was the victim of Thatcher's puppeteering.
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