Benjamin Perl, an admirer of Mr Major's who knows him personally, took the unusual step of buying space in the Times with unnamed 'associates' to reprint a Financial Times leading article of 9 April which questions whether Mr Major 'should or will' be replaced as leader.
The Prime Minister was unaware of the gesture until the advertisment on Page 5 of the Times - complete with a rash of misspellings not present in the original editorial - was drawn to his attention by aides. He made it clear to them he was 'bemused' as to its possible origins.
But Alan Gold, a north London public relations consultant, later confessed that a client of his, Mr Perl, whose Huntingdon factory makes picture frames, had been behind the advertisement in the Times. The newspaper has been in the forefront among broadsheets in carrying articles attacking the Prime Minister.
As a piece of pro-Major propaganda the unsolicited gesture is the acme of a soft-sell; the original editorial is far from fulsome. It was written - anonymously as is normal for leading articles - by Joe Rogaly, the FT's leading political commentator. It is an attempt to redress the balance of some of the more savage press criticisms of Mr Major. But while it praises some of Mr Major's achievements - including the Downing Street declaration on Northern Ireland - and argues that he should not take the blame for the deep European split in his party and the faltering economic recovery, it is also frank about his failings. It refers to the 'humiliating failure' of the Government's European Exchange Rate mechanism policy and concludes: 'Mr Major will always lack charisma and his last two years have been unfortunate, occasionally inept.' But it balances this observation by saying that 'the Leader of the Opposition's have been worse: a nullity'.
Its defence of Mr Major's stance on Europe is also on the lukewarm side: 'Even when it comes to Europe, it would be wrong to portray the Prime Minister's policies as a total disaster,' before going on to explain that the slim Tory majority and party divisions have been serious obstacles beyond the Prime Minister's control.
Mr Gold said last night that Mr Perl 'and his associates' read and respected both the Times and the Financial Times but felt that the FT editorial deserved wider readership. He added there were no plans to do anything further and emphasised that it was not an attack on the Times. The printing errors appear to have arisen because the article had to be pre-typeset on behalf of the advertisers before it was submitted to the Times.