As the Prime Minister yesterday celebrated his victory as the Radio 4 programme's Personality of the Year, the BBC admitted that not only had it discounted 4,000 of Mr Major's votes because of the possibility of multiple voting, but that it had no way of preventing telephone voters rigging polls.
Following "some evidence of multiple voting", organisers had removed the "maximum number of votes possible" from the poll, already controversial after Labour apparatchiks were caught out trying to fix Tony Blair's nomination.
"We wanted to give the biggest benefit of the doubt to the possibility of multiple votes," a BBC spokesman said yesterday. He refused to disclose how organisers had detected the attempt to rig the poll, but he admitted there was nothing the BBC could do to foil the use of the prefix 141, which shields callers' numbers, allowing over-enthusiastic supporters to vote repeatedly.
The Prime Minister ultimately took 23 per cent of the votes in the annual poll of listeners, finishing ahead of the nursery nurse Lisa Potts, who defended her charges from a man armed with a machete. She came second with 21 per cent, with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, third.
Brian Wilson, Labour's campaigns spokesman, was among the first to pour chilly water on the outcome. "This is the least credible result since Father Ted was given the golden priest award on Christmas Eve," he said, referring to the Channel 4 sitcom about Irish clerics.
Doubts about telephone polls were heightened last week with the revelation in The Independent that pro-shooting campaigners had attempted to sway two polls through organised voting. Members of the gun lobby admitted to a campaign to rig polls on Radio Five and Sky News, advising members to dial 141 before calling so that they could make multiple votes.
Professor Bob Worcester of MORI told The World at One yesterday: "The Tory Party clearly has been rigging, according to the BBC, otherwise they would not have disallowed 4,000 votes.
A total of 140,000 votes were cast in the final round of the Today telephone poll - twice as many as last year.