Turncoat tabloid sticks knife into beleaguered Major: The Sun's tolerance of a 'lemming' leader has just ended. Martin Whitfield reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a week too much for the Sun. The paper that claims to make and break governments began on Monday by giving John Major the benefit of the doubt and urged him to stick with his convictions amid the scandals enveloping him.

By yesterday, the paper's tolerance had broken. Under a headline that read 'What fools we all were' it made sure that Mr Major's week, bad already, could indeed get worse.

A full-page leading article told the paper's 10 million readers that working class Tory voters had been conned. Mr Major was dismissed as showing 'all the leadership of a lemming'. This was the paper that reminded Mr Major on the day after his general election victory: 'It's the Sun wot won it'.

Senior Conservatives may publicly discount the Sun's influence but privately they have seen its electoral value as a drip feed of anti-Labour propaganda is fed through daily to its working class audience. To lose its support is little short of a disaster. The rot set in last week when Richard Littlejohn, the Sun columist dubbed 'irritant of the year', indulged in what he called a 'comprehensive monstering' of Mr Major and his government following Tim Yeo's reluctant resignation as environment minister.

'John Major has forfeited the right to lead the Conservative Party and the nation. He is a weak, mediocre man, surrounded by unprincipled spivs and chancers,' he began before concluding: 'This is a sleazy, dishonest administration led by a political pygmy'.

And this was before:

Alleged gerrymandering in Conservative-controlled Westminster City Council.

The resignation of Lord Caithness from his post as shipping minister following the suicide of his wife and allegations that her death had followed an extra-marital affair.

The weekend resignation by Alan Duncan, parliamentary private secretary to Brian Mawhinney, the health minister, over the purchase by the millionaire MP for Rutland and Melton of his elderly neighbour's former council house in central London at a discounted price.

A decision by the Treasury to wipe out a pounds 200,000 debt owed by an exhibition company run by Gyles Brandreth, the Conservative MP for Chester.

Denials of homosexuality by David Ashby, Conservative MP for Leicestershire North West, following his admission that he had shared a hotel bed in France with a man. He had shared beds with men 'dozens' of times on cost grounds, he said.

Remembering, perhaps, its pre-election warning of the 'Nightmare on Kinnock Street', the Sun yesterday fell short of switching its allegiance to Labour. But it is clear that the paper's patience with Mr Major has run out.

'If the Tories want to remain in power they have got to clean up their act. And they must do it right now,' it thundered. Similar views, if more moderately expressed, have appeared in the editorial columns of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, both staunch Conservative papers.

'It would be foolish to pretend that all politicians in the past were of higher moral standing,' the Telegraph said. 'But it is no reflection of nostalgia to assert that today's Conservative MPs and parliamentary candidates are a sorry lot.

'In place of the old knights of the shire is a host of frankly inadequate men and women who, far from entering Parliament in any spirit of public service, are driven solely by the pursuit of self-advancement. The achievement and retention of office are their only objectives.'

The Daily Mail also took the opportunity this week to drive home Mr Major's failures: 'As he shilly-shallies between giving a moral lead and taking evasive inaction, John Major is in danger not only of heaping yet more ridicule on his tarnished Government but also of jeopardising his prime ministerial future'.