'It seems to me it relates to a certain debate that has nothing to do with this,' a Number 10 source said of a Times article questioning Mr Major's state of mind as he witnessed the collapse of the central plank of his economic and European policies.
The story portrayed Mr Major as deeply isolated, an underweight figure whose need to be 'all things to all men' rendered him incapable of sacking Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, and David Mellor, the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, who sprang to Mr Major's defence yesterday.
The coded accusation against Eurosceptic troublemakers came as the source denounced the article as 'complete nonsense' and 'fiction' which the Prime Minister had laughed at.
The material in the article, which Peter Stothard, editor of the Times, said the newspaper stood by, was rumoured yesterday to be part of a Thatcherite- inspired dirty tricks campaign against Mr Major, planted to try to smear him as a lacking the physical or mental stamina to govern. 'For five weeks one question has been asked again and again in Westminster and Fleet Street: did he crack up?' the article said. The rumours were first highlighted by Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times, in his political column on 7 October when he wrote: 'Certainly he wobbled inside Admiralty House on Black Wednesday, by some accounts wobbled alarmingly.'
Yesterday's article went on to paint a picture of the Prime Minister as a lonely, unhappy man, existing on junk food and fry-ups, paranoid about press coverage, and so worried about his 'wan' appearance as to go to the trouble of having his hair tinted.
As his wife Norma spent most of her time with her children at their Huntingdon home, Mr Major led a solitary life at Downing Street, uncertain who his real friends were, making emergency telephone calls to Hong Kong for advice from Chris Patten, the former Tory Party chairman.
Number 10 went to some pains yesterday to detail factual inaccuracies: Mr Major had not lost weight and did not tint his hair; contrary to the article's claims, Sarah Hogg, the powerful head of the Downing Street policy unit, did not go home early to see her two young children - her children were grown up - nor did Gus O'Donnell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, go home early to see his baby.
But it was clear that the article's suggestion that Mr Major 'wobbled in a nervous sense on 16 September' has caused concern. When pressed on whether the anti-Maastricht lobby was responsible, the source said: 'You can make up your own minds.'
Sir Norman Fowler, the Tory Party chairman, last night described Mr Stothard's justification of the story as 'defending the indefensible'. He added: 'I was with the Prime Minister for some hours on that day. I can therefore say with absolute authority that such an allegation (that Mr Major cracked up) is utterly without foundation.' The article was littered with factual inaccuracies and would go down as an example of the 'inaccurate, the nasty, and the malicious'.
Mr Major is rated the most unpopular Prime Minister, according to a Mori survey in today's European, with 16 per cent of a sample interviewed on Tuesday having confidence in him. Margaret Thatcher held the previous record - 20 per cent in March 1990.Reuse content