The Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, immediately condemned the decision as unfair, saying: "Judges are set to receive up to pounds 8,000, while thousands of nurses receive only a fraction of this."
The Prime Minister said in a written Commons reply that average recommended increases of 3.3 per cent for all 1.26 million public servants covered by six pay review bodies was a "move in the right direction", because it was down from last year's 4 per cent. "But the recommendations are still high considering the general level of public-sector pay settlements in the past year, and higher than the retail price index," Mr Major said.
"It would be difficult to meet the costs from existing spending plans without squeezing services ... We intend to accept the recommendations this year but, as last year, we intend to stage their introduction."
The staging, with everyone getting 2 per cent from 1 April - provided Labour does not come to power before then, along with its promised freeze for top people's pay - provides for a top-up payment from 1 December.
That reduces the overall increase in this year's pay bill from 3.3 per cent to an average 2.4 per cent - reducing the recommended increase, overall, from an extra pounds 1,068m to pounds 805m.
Asked why the judiciary had received preferential treatment, a Treasury source suggested that the small numbers involved - 3,053 judges - made it affordable, and their pay review body had urged a higher award following a special two-year review.
In a complex package, the biggest tangle of all was provided on ministerial pay - with Labour adding to the muddle by saying that if it came to office after 1 April's staged, 2 per cent award, it would not be clawed back for top people in Whitehall, the judiciary or the armed forces.
Citing the Prime Minister's pay as an example of what was proposed for ministers in the Commons, the Treasury source said he already had in the pipeline a catch-up pay increase of pounds 42,272 due immediately after the election, taking him to pounds 102,000. The average ministerial increase was put at about pounds 16,000.
If the Conservatives win the election, that would be paid automatically, along with a further 2 per cent from 1 April and another 0.75 per cent staged rise from 1 December.
But a Labour spokesman said that if they won the election, that pipeline increase would not be taken; Tony Blair's ministerial pay would stick at pounds 58,557. Labour ministers would take only the 2 per cent, 1 April increase that is due in MPs' pounds 43,000 salary - that would also be paid to Conservative ministers - which follows a resumed linkage with civil service pay levels.