Mr Humphrys said later that the subject for interview had been "difficult to call" but defended his right to pursue the Prime Minister on sleaze in the Mr Major's first interview since the subject hit the headlines.
The Today programme said callers to the show said Mr Major had come across as bad tempered during the exchange when he said: "No, John, you have hijacked half of this interview already." Mr Major claimed the subject of sleaze was irrelevant to most of the public but declared "If there is an anti-sleaze candidate in this election, it is me." The Prime Minister had been pressed to say whether he thought Conservative candidates tainted by financial or personal scandal should step down. "I am determined that Parliament will be above reproach. But I believe these matters must be dealt with in proper due form," he said.
Mr Humphrys expressed surprise that Mr Major had declared the interview to be hijacked: "It is an interesting question - who does an interview belong to? Is it ours, or the Prime Minister's? I think it belongs to the listeners."
"He clearly felt that sleaze shouldn't have been there at all," said Mr Humphrys, "but we couldn't not ask about sleaze, and you cannot just ask one question and then let them off the hook."
Mr Humphrys denied that following Mr Major's rebuke he had allowed the Prime Minister to get his own way in the interview.
"You are damned or blessed whichever way you manage it. One doesn't consciously say, 'well, I've given him a hard time on this, so I'll ease up for the rest of it.' Though you do have to remember that listeners don't want an interview that is just endless bickering.
"It was the launch of the party manifesto and you have to give them a chance to talk about the contents of the manifesto."
Mr Major praised at length the Government's achievements on the economy, inflation, health and education. "That must be what we are examined on in the general election," he said.
The Today programme interviewed Tony Blair this morning as the Labour Party launched its manifesto and will interview Paddy Ashdown tomorrow.