While Sir John Major seemed only too anxious to tell the Leveson Inquiry of Rupert Murdoch’s secret threat in 1997 to withdraw the support of his newspapers, the former Prime Minister managed to skate over the impact of the enthusiastic backing which he received from the Sun in the 1992 general election and the subsequent downfall of his government amid allegations of “Tory sleaze.”
Major could not be faulted on his demolition of Murdoch’s own assertion before Lord Justice Leveson that he had never asked any Prime Minister for a favour.
The former Premier recalled in his evidence (12.6.2012) a private dinner in February 1997, attended only by their two wives, at which Murdoch indicated he wanted see a change in policy on Europe. “If we couldn’t change our European policies his papers could not and would not support the Conservative government.”
Major was not surprised a month later when the front page of what he called Murdoch’s “house pet” announced that the Tories had been abandoned: “The Sun Backs Blair”. (Sun, 16.3.1997)
But Major’s memory seemed to be playing tricks when it came to his recollections of the 1992 general election. He maintained that although the press “were not necessarily hostile” to him, he had thought “all the way through” the election campaign that the Conservatives would win.
He accepted that the Sun’s treatment of Neil Kinnock was a “pretty crude campaign, over the top” but he did not think it had made a huge difference to the outcome of the election. The press coverage had simply accelerated a trend: “I think we would have won in 1992, just as we would have lost in 1997.”
Major seemed to have overlooked the reality on the Sun’s coverage. Its eve of poll issue was an eight page spread under the logo “A Nightmare on Kinnock Street” and close up pictures of the eyes of the two leaders. Major’s eyes were smiling, they looked normal, whereas Neil Kinnock’s eyes looked agitated and alarmed.
Captions underneath said readers could have “no confidence” in Kinnock whereas Major was “solid and dependable with a cool head.”
On polling day, the Sun’s editor Kelvin MacKenzie produced an infamous edition. Superimposed on a picture of a light bulb was a photograph of Kinnock’s face. Alongside the illustration was the following headline: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”
The Sun was not alone in castigating Kinnock and standing by Major in the 1992 general election. The importance of the press campaign was underlined by Lord McAlpine, a former Conservative Party treasurer. He considered the three heroes of the election were Sir David English, Sir Nicholas Lloyd and Kelvin MacKenzie, respectively the editors of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun.
“Never in the past nine elections have they come out so strongly in favour of the Conservatives. Never has their attack on the Labour party been so comprehensive...This was how the election was won.”
Major was also rather disingenuous when rebutting a question from Robert Jay QC regarding the role of the Conservatives’ former spin doctor Tim Collins in the presentation of the Prime Minister’s “back to basics” speech which was later ridiculed for trying to secure a “return to old fashioned morality.”
Major denied that he had ever regarded his speech at the 1993 Conservative party conference as “a puritanical crusade” and he insisted it had enjoyed “huge support from the media for the first nine months.”
He explained that he had only learned some months ago that “a junior press spokesman at Central Office, not a government minister, not the Prime Minister, not the government itself” had actually indicated at a private meeting that “back to basics” might have been “a morale crusade.”
Again the Prime Minister’s memory seems at fault. Collins was hardly “a junior press spokesman.” In fact he was the press officer assigned to travel with Major throughout the 1992 general election and he went on to become the Conservatives’ director of communications and later a Conservative MP.
His briefing to journalists after Major’s ill-fated speech at the 1993 party conference reflected the Prime Minister’s wish that the 1990s should be about “rolling back the permissive society” – a phrase I used in several of my radio reports that day.
I felt it helped explain the significance of Major’s appeal for a return to basic Conservative beliefs. “It is a time to return to those old core values...time to get back to basics.”
When the “back to basics” theme backfired amid ministerial resignations, attempts were made to withdraw the spin which was originally put on the speech but Collins could not have been clearer in his briefing at Blackpool that Major was referring to personal morality.
I perhaps share some responsibility for Major’s belated denigration of Tim Collins: I named him as the source of the 1993 off-the-record guidance to journalists in my book Soundbites and Spin Doctors which was published in 1995.
Illustrations: Sun, 1992 general election