Nor was the article - detailing a raft of stories based on rumours that would have been unfathomable to many readers - a stunt to boost sales on the occasion of the magazine's 80th anniversary re- launch, Jolyon Jenkins, the deputy editor, said.
Mr Jenkins said 5,000 extra copies were only printed at the eleventh hour, after a wave of press inquiries about the story.
Publication of smears in the form of denials is not unknown. It was the technique used against a former Conservative Cabinet minister suspected of sexual misconduct with under-age boys.
But Mr Jenkins said: 'The article was notable for its absence of innuendo. It was meant to nail the rumours once and for all.'
The reward for what Steve Platt, the editor, said was an honest effort to expose a smear campaign was a libel writ. The Statesman claimed yesterday that Mr Major had thereby 'boxed himself in'. But the practical effect, for the time being at least, is to gag the rest of the media - BBC staff were warned off the story yesterday - and at no great expense. The cost of legal advice and the issue of the writ is unlikely to have exceeded pounds 1,000, small change in the world of libel.
Mr Major's decision to sue is not unique. In 1967 the then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, successfully sued the pop group The Move over a nude caricature of him on promotional postcards for the record, Flowers in the Rain. The action, launched against the background of repeated gossip about his private life, ensured that royalties earned by the record went to charity.
In 1923, Churchill sued Lord Alfred Douglas, over an accusation that he had used his position as First Lord of the Admiralty to depress the value of British shares on the US stock exchange.
Serving and former Cabinet ministers who have claimed and won 'substantial' damages include Michael Forsyth, who sued Channel 4's Dispatches in 1991, when he was a Scottish Office minister, over false allegations of extreme right-wing links.
Peter Bottomley, the former transport minister, won two awards from the Mail on Sunday in 1990. Two years earlier the then Tory party chairman Norman Tebbit collected pounds 14,000 damages and pounds 16,000 costs from the Guardian over the infamous 'Nobody with a conscience votes Conservative' libel.
As the law now stands, Mr Major's remedy lies in the law of libel, but he will find difficulty in separating the episode from his apparent determination to press ahead with a privacy law.
Highlighting a 'public interest' in what would otherwise be a private, personal matter, the New Statesman article says: 'If true, the fact of a prime ministerial affair could have had significance in terms of how David Mellor's position was handled before he eventually resigned. But that would only have been so because the affair was secret.
'People in positions of power shouldn't have secrets. . . because it leaves them open to concealed pressure . . . not least from the press itself.' But whether a judge would allow the press a public interest defence in such a case is an open question.
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