TORIES IN TURMOIL / The Dinner: Sour hangover from a convivial farewell

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The Independent Online
NOW WELL in the public domain, the black-tie farewell dinner for Gus O'Donnell in the state dining room at No 10 on Thursday evening has taken on an importance which few of the participants imagined when they arrived at Downing Street. There were drinks for the 30 guests before - and afterwards - in the adjoining 'Pillared Room'. Mr Major made a warm, well crafted speech of thanks to his departing press secretary. He even at one point imagined aloud with surprising accuracy what Private Eye's 'Secret Diary of John Major, age 47 3/4 ' would say about it. His speech and others by Mr O'Donnell and on behalf of the press by Michael Brunson, political editor of ITN, were warmly applauded. But the evening has become famous for whether or not Mr Major said he would 'fucking crucify the right' over what they had done to him during the confusion over the back to basics campaign.

You cannot prove a negative. I did not hear the Prime Minister make the remark attributed to him by Saturday's Sun and Daily Mail, or any version of it, expletives deleted or not. That is not conclusive. It is in the nature of such gatherings that the host moves from group to small group, so there is no one at the occasion apart from Mr Major who can claim omniscience about what he did or did not say. It is inconceivable that he made the remark over dinner itself. He was seated between Mr O'Donnell's wife Melanie and his mother Helen, with his father James O'Donnell almost opposite and next to Norma Major. If it happened, therefore, it must have been over drinks. But if he had been in a mood to denounce his right-wing Cabinet colleagues in such language you might have expected there to have been a 'buzz' going round the room. None of the four journalistic colleagues present that I have talked to heard it and three others - including two editors - have said on the record that they did not hear it either, and they think it most unlikely that he said it. It also seems a little out of keeping with the occasion. Mr Major was relaxed, reasonably expansive and appeared to be bullish about the way that morning's Cabinet had unified around the back to basics campaign.

Nobody can say with absolute certainty except Mr Major himself or the Sun and Daily Mail's informant what happened. The latter will lie low especially since any such leak would be a massive breach of the conventions ruling such private occasions.

Both Tory papers are currently hungry for stories damaging to Mr Major, believing that there would be a greater chance of defeating Labour if Mr Major were removed. Equally, the vastly experienced political editors of the Daily Mail and the Sun, Gordon Greig and Trevor Kavanagh - both of whom have robustly defended their stories - would certainly not have written them unless they believed they were true.

Political journalists tend to be on the alert for what they might be missing even on such convivial occasions as last Thursday. On this occasion all the journalists present say they did not recognise the story. Either it did not happen, or they missed the most electric moment of the evening.