G7 Summit: PM's deal pushes lawsuit into shade

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TOKYO - For a nightmarish moment it looked as though John Major's summit would be taken over by the kind of personal embarrassment which has been wont to plague his recent foreign trips.

The timing of his decision to agree to an out-of-court settlement with the New Statesman and Society over its article on rumours about his private life was a gift to the lobby correspondents. It coincided with his lowest personal poll rating to date. His 14 per cent approval rating is rivalled only by his Japanese counterpart, the summit host Kiichi Miyazawa, who is due to lose an election here on 18 July.

Mr Major had dropped his law suit, the story went, because the political climate meant he could not afford to drive a left-wing publication into the ground. But as reporters waited on the terrace of the British embassy residence for the Prime Minister to face the music - with the other two British summiteers, Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Clarke, hovering like modest heirs-apparent nearby - calls on mobile telephones conveyed the news that the trade talks had achieved a 'breakthrough'.

A few minutes later a beaming Mr Major appeared, to tell the press that Britain had badgered and bullied to win this agreement and that it would mean, in a word, jobs. The lawsuit story quickly took a back seat and by the end of the day had faded away altogether - by which time it was also safe for British officials to admit that the trade agreement was far from certain to be converted into reality in a Gatt deal at the end of the year, and to announce the date of the Christchurch by-election into the bargain.

Before all that, observers had recalled how the New Statesman affair began: on a foreign trip, to India. And how his visit to North America had been marred by speculation about his and his wife's health. And how the EC summit in Copenhagen had been overshadowed by the Michael Mates affair.

But not this time. The conspiracy theorists then began to speculate that the trade 'breakthrough' had in fact been sewn up days in advance to allow the G7 leaders, most of whom are hounded by absymal ratings, to bask in the glory.

'Say what you will about John Major, but at least he does the work and reads his briefs,' said one European official. 'Kohl and Mitterrand are now so grand they don't even bother to read anything until the last minute, and that's when the problems start.' The comment reflects the fact that Mr Major is not only more respected abroad than at home, but also more liked. 'He's considered 'nice',' said another European source.