Exclusive: secrets of the Major years

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I have never been involved in ghost-writing a major political autobiography before, so my recent stint devoted to helping John Major to write The Major Years has introduced me to several problems new to me.

One of them was trying to get Mr Major to remember anything at all about his years in office.

"Perhaps we could turn to the night that Britain left the ERM," I said one day, "the night remembered by so many as Black Thursday."

"I don't remember much about that," said Mr Major. "What I do remember is that Norman was in charge. He made a complete mess of it. He had to go. I told him to go. If that is not responsible and direct action I don't know what is. I am sure Norman tells a very different story. All I can say is, take everything he says with a pinch of salt."

"Mr Major," I said, "I shall not be talking to Mr Lamont. I am not writing an article. I am doing your book. I am writing down your words."

"Ah!" said Mr Major. "My words, eh? So I can say what I like about Norman?"

"Oh, yes."

"So I can tell the truth?"

I was about to remark that saying what you like is not always the same as telling the truth, when he carried straight on:

"In that case, I can remember exactly what happened on the night of Black Thursday."

He then told me a version which I could not possibly print. The way he told the story reminded me of the rumour that Mr Major had a fine sense of humour which he showed only in private, and I later asked him if he had deliberately decided to present a humourless face as Prime Minister.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Part of Margaret Thatcher's secret of success was her total lack of humour. She didn't know when she was being ridiculous, so she was not scared of it. I thought I could emulate that on purpose."

"I always thought she must have a secret sense of humour," I said. "Only a person with a gift for comedy could declare war to get an island like the Falklands back, then proceed to give a place like Hong Kong away."

Mr Major looked grave.

"Extraordinary, isn't it, how that woman is still remembered for the Falklands War ... I wonder what my period of office will be remembered for?"

I could not help noticing that when Mr Major referred to his own time at No 10, it was always as his "period of office", but when it came to Margaret Thatcher it was her "stint" or "tenure", or even "reign". Perhaps it was his sense of humour.

"Black Thursday?" I suggested. "Mad cow disease? The Scott report?"

His face tightened and all traces of humour vanished.

"It may not be within the gift of politicians to choose what to be remembered for," he snapped, "but at least they may be allowed to nominate other things than unfortunate accidents. Is there anything disastrous that happened that can really be blamed on me, and not on Douglas Hogg?"

"Yes," I said. "The continued presence at the Home Office of Michael Howard, possibly the most dislikeable man in British politics. You appointed him. You stood by while he ranted about prisons, and was condemned by British judges, and sacked people instead of taking responsibility for anything, and looked so smug ..."

I paused, suddenly aware that I might have overstepped the privileges of a ghost-writer. But to my surprise he was smiling.

"My dear fellow," he said."You must always have someone like Michael Howard in your cabinet, someone outstandingly smug and easy to hate, so that everyone else can see the flak directed towards him and away from them. Oh, no, he was invaluable."

"At last, something interesting to put in our book!" I said.

"You can't put that in," said Mr Major. "In any case, I want to avoid personalities and concentrate on our very real achievements in office."

"You may wish to do that," I said, "but nobody will wish to buy such a book."

He threw me a baleful glance and turned on the TV news, a thing he still did out of habit every few hours to see what was being said about him. There was only yet more coverage of our departure from Hong Kong, with pictures of Chris Patten talking and smiling. With an unexpected oath, John Major turned it off again.

"That man!" he said.

He had nothing against Patten personally. It was just the deeply felt humiliation of leaving No 10 to a chorus of silence, at a time when cheers, hurrahs and media attention were going to the man leaving Hong Kong. This, I fear, will also not be mentioned in our book.

`The Major Years' will be published early in 1998 and remaindered soon afterwards.