Major's phone `snub' to Clinton played down

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The Independent Online
Government sources last night sought to play down evidence of a deepening rift in John Major's relations with Bill Clinton after it emerged the Prime Minister had delayed for at least five days in replying to a telephone call from the White House.

The President's office contacted Downing Street on Saturday to see if Mr Major, in his constituency, would take a call from Mr Clinton, who on Friday had received the Prime Minister's letter about the President's forthcoming meeting with Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.

Mr Major refused to take the call and his officials said last night that the White House agreed that the contact should take place after the Prime Minister returned today from his four-day visit to the Middle East. Denying a snub to Mr Clinton, senior government sources said Mr Major could not take the call because he had to prepare for his meetings in Jerusalem, Gaza and Amman.

Mr Clinton yesterday faxed a letter to the Prime Minister, which Mr Major received as he was leaving Israel for Jordan.

The officials insisted the procedure was normal but the failure of the two world leaders to talk directly on the telephone for five days underlines the strains in their relations. The affair will overshadow Mr Major's visit to Washington on 2-4 April. Officials travelling with the Prime Minister said the fax had been "very constructive". They also pointed to remarks by the assistant secretary of state, Dick Holborough, as chiming with the Prime Minister's view on Sinn Fein. He said decommissioning of arms by the IRA must take place now, not at the end of the talks process and the ball was in Sinn Fein's court.

One senior government source said telephone calls to world leaders could not be fixed up "in a flash". He added: "The Prime Minister was on the eve of leaving for the Middle East."

The issue was raised at a press conference in Gaza yesterday when the Prime Minister held historic talks with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO. The day before, the White House again contacted Downing Street but Mr Major knew nothing of any attempts to reach him in the Middle East.

In Washington, the White House yesterday again went about pretending all was well in relations with Britain. "They simply didn't connect," a White House spokesman said. He added the phone call was for no special reason, the President simply wished to "chat".