He acknowledged that "lots of people misbehaved" when he was prime minister, but said they did so as individuals rather than members of the government. It was not institutional sleaze, he said.
All I could think of on seeing this was the arms-to-Iraq affair that was investigated by the Scott Report. I just want to note the parliamentary debate that followed publication of the report, which was highly critical of ministers William Waldegrave and Nicholas Lyell.
The government contemptibly decided to give shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook just a couple of hours in advance of the debate to read this colossal document – relating to abuses of government power – while ministers had had far longer to dissect it and prepare their defences. Cook still skewered them marvellously.
The debate took place in February 1996, when John Major’s slim Commons majority was in a state of advanced collapse. A government defeat would certainly have cost Waldegrave and Lyell their jobs, yet despite this obvious vested interest, Major still allowed them to vote to save their own skins. Thanks to this decision, they won by a single vote.
Another episode that springs to mind is the matter of politically motivated election timing – no, not this year but in 1997. Major prorogued Parliament unusually early – well before its formal dissolution – which halted the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey.
This meant that Downey’s potentially humiliating report into the cash-for-questions scandal couldn’t be published until safely after the election. Major could easily have timed the prorogation so that voters went to the polls knowing the truth, but he chose to hide behind his executive powers.
People often thought of Major – and still do think of him – as basically decent but surrounded by a few bad apples. Dull is not the same thing as decent, though. He went to some lengths to see no evil, and to try to make sure the public couldn’t see it either. To downplay and conceal corruption, and to protect one’s corrupt allies, is itself a form of corruption. Let’s not treat this self-serving has-been as a noble elder statesman.