John and Norma Major were so resigned to a Conservative party defeat by Labour in the 1997 election that Norma “discreetly” moved her clothes out of Downing Street in the weeks leading up to polling day, declassified files from the National Archives show.
In an advisory note dated October 2000, Alex Allan, who had been principal private secretary to John Major and briefly to Tony Blair, wrote to Jeremy Heywood, who at the time was holding that role under Blair, advising on what ought to be done in the run-up to the next general election in 2001.
Blair was confident of a second term at this point, but Allan was keen to pass on what he had learned as part of a regularly updated manual on “procedures for general elections” passed between private secretaries.
“This is obviously delicate. But John and [Norma] Major clearly knew the odds were that Labour would win the 1997 election. So I had some private discussions with them,” he wrote. “Norma discreetly moved quite a lot of clothes out of Downing Street during the weeks running up to the election so that there was less to move if they did lose. If they had won, bringing clothes and other possessions back would have been a pleasure!”
The note goes on to detail the extraordinary level of planning that goes into a handover of power after an election and the potential diplomatic minefields that aides need to try to avoid in moving on incumbent ministers.
Allan outlines in the note how, in the run-up to the 1997 election, he arranged to show Jonathan Powell, who became Blair’s chief of staff, around 10 and 11 Downing Street when the prime minister, chancellor and their families were away. “That was when we decided the No 10 flat was too small for the Blairs.”
Major was insistent that on polling day no removal van should be seen on or near Downing Street, the note recalls. On the day, advisers were sent into a panic when a van did pull up on the prime minister’s street. “Hasty investigation revealed that a Cabinet Office accommodation officer had thought this would be a quiet day to get some office equipment moved in or out of Whitehall,” writes Allan.
He went on to note how Major was cross with the Cabinet Office the day after the election, feeling they were insensitive in their keenness to make sure there was no government property among the Majors’ effects.
It also took some effort“some efforts” to get the chancellor, Ken Clarke, out of No 11, recalls Allan. He wasn’t “the type” to do things in a hurry, Allan says. “He kept saying he was sure Tony Blair [who was due to move into No 11] wouldn’t mind if he delayed this for a day or two.”