World leaders were dismayed by John Major’s risky leadership contest designed to challenge critics within the Conservative Party and feared he might lose, according to previously confidential papers.
Documents released to the National Archives under the 30-year rule reveal that European capitals did not share Mr Major’s – now Sir John – confidence about his chances.
In the summer of 1995 Sir John had grown so tired of attacks from Tory Eurosceptics he announced a leadership contest, telling his detractors to “put up or shut up”.
The gauntlet was taken up by Welsh secretary John Redwood, one of the cabinet Eurosceptics famously dubbed “b*****ds” by Sir John.
Roderic Lyne, Sir John’s private secretary for foreign affairs, was detailed to brief key allies on the thinking behind the move. “My message was that they need not fear your departure. This was a bold step to stamp your authority on dissidents and would greatly strengthen your position,” he informed the prime minister.
He reported that Irish premier John Bruton was “watching developments avidly and with close concern” while Bill Clinton was offering to make a supportive intervention “if the bureaucrats allowed it”.
Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, was believed to be particularly worried that Sir John might lose.
“Helmut was very grateful for the inside story and was crossing all his fingers (I said you wouldn’t need them!),” Mr Lyne, now Sir Roderic, reported. “Helmut asked if there was anything he could do – or not do – which would be helpful to you.”
In the event, Sir John prevailed with 218 votes against 89, with 20 abstentions or spoilt ballots, a result not as decisive as he might have wished. Nonetheless, he struck an upbeat note in his responses to messages of congratulations from fellow leaders.
“It was not an easy step that I took, and a great many people – particularly in certain quarters of our press – were only too ready to declare that I had made a huge mistake,” he wrote to Jacques Chirac in Paris.
“But the outcome, as you say, has been excellent, and has achieved what the Conservative Party and this country urgently needed: there can be no further argument about the leadership during the lifetime of this government, and we now have a sure foundation on which to move forward.”
Comic’s impression may have taken heat off Major
Secret documents reveal how the head of the civil service leant on Channel 4 to curtail a comedian’s mischief-making impressions of John Major, after a Conservative MP was so completely taken in during a phone call that he refused to believe he had not been speaking to the then-prime minister.
Rory Bremner’s mimicry may even have helped temporarily defuse a brewing row in the Tory ranks, National Archives documents reveal. Mr Bremner rang MPs Sir Richard Body, John Carlisle and Ann Winterton, claiming to be the prime minister calling from Malaysia, where he was on an official visit.
He appealed for support and even offered Sir Richard a dance at the upcoming 1993 conference in Blackpool.
The Eurosceptic Sir Richard at first did not accept he had been fooled even after the head of the civil service, Sir Robin, now Lord, Butler, explained the hoax to him. He even offered to go easy on Sir John as a result of the call.
According to the official note of their conversation, he told Lord Butler it was “a very good thing” the prime minister had made the call. He said he had spoken afterwards to Mr Carlisle and they had agreed they should back up Mr Major and help the government through.
“They had spoken to their ‘whips’ (Body indicated that he meant the unofficial whips of their group). They had taken the heat off the prime minister,” the note said. “If John Major had made that call, he had done himself a good turn. Butler said that he had not made that call.
“Body replied: ‘Well you say that. But I can’t find any reason to criticise him for doing so. He had ‘rung around’ and they had ‘all agreed to lay off’.”
When Lord Butler told him Sir John’s itinerary meant it was “physically impossible” for him to have made the calls, Sir Richard insisted he must have “slipped away” to do so.
“Body repeated that he did not think this was an impressionist,” the note said. “Butler should tell the prime minister that the call had saved his bacon. ‘We sent word around to back him up at least until after the conference. He was obviously in a bad state. Now he is obviously regretting it. But I know his voice.’”
In two subsequent calls with Michael Grade, then Channel 4 boss, Lord Butler “made clear we might want to take the matter further if satisfactory assurances were not received” on a number of the government’s concerns, the previously confidential Downing Street papers show.
Lord Butler demanded that Mr Bremner not make any more phone calls impersonating the PM and that tapes of the three hoax conversations would not be broadcast.
In response the now-Lord Grade said he had ordered that no more calls be made without his permission, but did not promise a total ceasefire.
Lord Butler wrote in a report: “He did not rule out the possibility that there might be such joke telephone calls as on other programmes – for example Beadle’s About has played jokes on people where they have been shown receiving fake calls from the Queen, the Prince of Wales and Lady Thatcher – but these would always be on non-political matters and the recipient would be told before the end of the phone call that this call was a hoax.”
Nonetheless, Lord Grade agreed not to broadcast any tapes without permission and “assented to my proposition that entertainment should not be allowed to get mixed up with real life”, Lord Butler added, calling the resolution “reasonably satisfactory”.
The Channel 4 boss had been “conciliatory and by implication apologetic, although I did not hear him use the actual word ‘sorry’”, Lord Butler wrote.
The prime minister felt it was “unacceptable” that two of the three MPs hoaxed had not been brought in on the joke at the end of the calls, according to another document in the file.
Lord Grade has previously spoken about the behind-the-scenes panic apparently sparked in Whitehall by Mr Bremner’s impersonation.
He recounted his 1993 conversations with the head of the civil service to the Media Masters podcast at the start of 2020.
He said: “[Lord Butler] said, ‘Mr Grade, we have a bit of a problem. Your Mr Rory Bremner. He’s very good at impersonating the prime minister, Mr Major. He’s been ringing MPs, pretending to be John Major.
“‘We don’t have a problem with that,’ he said. ‘But the issue we have is that, he’s so good, he could ring the chancellor of the Exchequer and get the Budget.’ I said, ‘Oh, I get the point. Leave it with me. I’ll call you tomorrow.’”
Mr Bremner recounted the episode in a 2019 interview, telling NMP Live how he, as Sir John, had attempted to butter up Sir Richard with the offer of a dance at the Tory conference.
He said: “Do you remember, those days when the Conservative Party was splitting itself up over Europe and having arguments? Yes, yes, a long time ago.
“So I rang up one of the so-called ‘b*****ds’ as John Major while John Major was in the air flying back from Japan. We hadn’t got a script, we were just making it up.”
Mr Bremner said his impersonation of the former PM was a trainspotter’s voice mixed with Julian Clary’s.
One final document in the file shows No 10 was still on the case two years later. Sir John’s principal private secretary, Alex Allan, alerted Lord Butler to another call by Mr Bremner, this time to Esther Ranzen, the TV presenter, for a Comic Relief broadcast.
Sir Alex told John Birt, the head of the BBC, that he did not wish to be a “killjoy” but nonetheless reminded him that “we would be concerned if Rory Bremner was ringing political figures”.
Additional reporting by Press Association