Major trumps his rivals and floors the media critics; THE CONFOUNDED PRESS

The Prime Minister's triumph in the leadership contest left much egg on many faces, report Stephen Castle and Nick Cohen
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The Independent Online

ON TUESDAY night, just after John Major had confounded his critics by being re-elected leader of the Conservative party, Douglas Hurd was as angry as his friends could remember seeing him.

His rage was not directed against the Bosnian Serbs, the Iranian government, or even John Redwood, but against the Conservative newspapers which had made his and John Major's life a misery.

"We're going to get the millionaire press," he said at a retirement party for his private secretary at his official residence. The millionaires he had in mind were Conrad Black, the Canadian tycoon who owns the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator, and Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Sun, News of the World, Today and assorted Times titles. Later in the week Mr Hurd added: "Now I know what it is like to have been leader of the Labour Party."

Had the usually unflappable ex-diplomat succumbed to paranoia? Apparently not. The morning after the vote, two of Mr Black's middle managers were on the Docklands Light Railway,which drags journalists to the Telegraph offices in the Canary Wharf Tower, east London. "Charles [Charles Moore, editor of the Sunday Telegraph] is very depressed," said one. "He thought he was going to bring down the Government."

Mr Moore was probably not the only editor who harboured such ambitions. Every Conservative paper except the London Evening Standard and the Express group has turned against the Prime Minister. The anti-Major drumbeat is sounded, week after week, month after month, by old and young alike.

The former include Paul Johnson, Lord Rees Mogg and Peregrine Worsthorne. The younger set includes Matthew D'Ancona, 26, the son of a Maltese Catholic family who has become a fierce partisan of the Ulster Protestant cause, on the Times. The Daily Telegraph has Simon Heffer, its 34-year- old deputy editor, who describes himself as a follower of Enoch Powell rather than a Thatcherite and whose writing shows a moral revulsion against the Government. (The Daily Mail is reportedly trying to woo Mr Heffer with a package worth pounds 180,000.) There, too, is Boris Johnson, 31, a star columnist who objects to Mr Major on the more mundane grounds that "he has very little chance of winning the next election".

The young and the old on different papers know each other, and go to each other's weddingsand dinner parties. Promising Tory intellectuals join the circuit. Last year the historian Andrew Roberts, 31, wrote Eminent Churchillians, which praised Churchill as wartime leader but lamented his wet tendencies to let blacks into Britain and talk to unions. Mr Roberts has become a regular commentator in several Tory papers.

Before Mr Major's victory, the network seemed impressive. Last week, paper after paper called on Tory MPs to get rid of Major. "Time to Ditch the Captain," said the Mail. The Sun described him as the "Prime Ditherer". The Times called on "good Conservatives" to vote against him.

The Daily Telegraph carried a studied insult on Monday, despite intensive government lobbying the week before. It printed a piece from Mr Major appealing for support. Next to it was an editorial calling on the Tories to ignore what Mr Major was saying and "give another leader the opportunity" to save them. The leader was written by Max Hastings, the paper's editor, but office gossip has it that he was listening to the advice of Messers Black and Heffer.

Now that the Conservative party has ignored the leader-writers, members of the anti-Major clique seem altogether less formidable. Their Tory opponents claim that their stance last week was shot through with self- pity and self-regard.

When Simon Heffer was asked about the Daily Express accusations that the Telegraph, Mail and Times had got it wrong by not "listening to the views of their readers or the Tory faithful", he replied that his paper had expected Major to win but had simply said what it thought was right. Then he added: "If we're not allowed to do that, there's no point in a free press. We might as well just have Pravda and Izvestia and put people like me up against the wall and shoot us."

To people like Mr Heffer, John Major is not the right-winger Labour supporters condemn for closing the coal-mines and privatising the railways but a left-wing serpent who betrayed the Thatcher legacy.

Paul Johnson, who has repeatedly predicted the downfall of Mr Major for at least two years, feels most keenly that the glory has fled when he goes abroad. "When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister I travelled throughout the world and was proud to be British," he said. "Now when I travel people say that he is a nonentity."

The nonetity's victory leaves the Conservative press grandees with the problem of whom should they support at the next election. Lord Rees-Mogg, a Times columnist, predicted that his newspaper would offer tepid support to the Tories. Paul Johnson will back Tony Blair. Mr Blair himself announced last week that he was going to a Rupert Murdoch-sponsored international conference (where, the cynical suspect, backs will be scratched and deals done ). Mr Heffer said he would not vote.

The Daily Telegraph, whose editor is thought to be uneasy with the anti- Major line, may return to the fold. Many Telegraph journalists celebrated Mr Major's victory last week because they thought it would end what they described as the "unctuous" and "Hello-style" treatment of Mr Redwood and Mr Portillo.

The most interesting difficulty faces the Daily Mail. Mr Major may have thought earlier this year that he had bought the Mail group's support when he announced proposals for media ownership laws which would have the effect of restraining Mr Murdoch (seen as a lost cause) and allowing the Mail, Guardian and others to expand, but the Mail has continued to campaign against him.

"I know that Downing Street is furious," said one Mail executive, "but our editors have a lot of freedom, hard though you may find that to believe.

"Paul Dacre [the Mail editor] is a great journalist but politically inept. He takes all his politics from the likes of Simon Heffer and has become fanatically anti-Europe and anti-Major.

"The problem is that this election shows that among the Conservatives in Parliament and in the constituencies, Major is still a force. We and many others thought we were appealing to them by attacking him, and they have ignored us.

"I don't know what we're going to do."

As it is, the next election will be fought between Mr Major and Mr Blair and, whoever wins, most of the Conservative press will not be happy until and unless Mr Portillo or Mr Redwood becomes the party leader at some point in the late 1990s.

Boris Johnson concedes that the hope that Major the loser would disappear may have been based on a false premise. "Major has knocked a bit of a hole in our case by winning," he said. "The fellow did prove to be a bit of a fighter after all."