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John Major gives serious thought to resigning on a point of principle

AS I revealed yesterday, I have been working with John Major on his book of memoirs for HarperCollins (tentatively entitled Major Hold- Up Ahead) so when I heard that all sorts of writers were thinking of leaving the Murdoch firm I was very anxious in case John Major should join the rush and leave me short of pocket money.

So you can imagine how relieved I was when he rang me back yesterday to discuss the matter.

"If I refuse to do the book for HarperCollins," he said, "will I have to hand the advance back?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so."

"That is quite normal?"

"Well, it's not quite normal. What usually happens is that a writer gets an advance for doing a book, fails to do the book over a period of ten years and finally pays back the advance when inflation has reduced it to a much smaller sum. However, you won't get much moral kudos for doing that."

"I am not a rich man," said the ex-prime minister.

When people say that, they usually mean they are short of money.

"Look," I said, "even if you have to hand the money back to HarperCollins, you can get it back by placing the book with another publisher."

"Do you think any other publisher will want the book?"

"I am sure they will," I said.

When people say that, they usually mean the exact opposite. Mr Major sighed audibly. If you're going to sigh, sigh audibly, I always say.

"I sometimes wonder if people really want to read my story. After all, there is nothing quite so dead as the immediate past."

This startled me. It was the nearest to an epigram I had ever heard Mr Major utter.

"Oh, but people always want to read eye-witness accounts of history, sir! Think of Harold Wilson's book, The Governance of Britain. Think of Margaret Thatcher's book, The Governess of Britain..."

I paused for a laugh. All I got was another sigh.

"Yes, but nobody ever read those," he said. "I think I'll just pack it in. What's the point of producing another portentous, unread self-justifying tome?"

"To make money?"

There was another sigh, or perhaps the same sigh again.

"Tell you what," I said, "if you want to pack it in, now is the best time to do it. You don't have to say that you've lost heart. Just say it's in protest against Rupert Murdoch's trashing of Chris Patten's book."

There was a silence.

"The last time you spoke out in public was to call Saddam Hussein a dangerous psychopath. You could use the same speech again about Mr Murdoch."

"Isn't that going a bit far? Saddam Hussein is a power-mad tyrant who ruthlessly crushes anyone who tries to disagree with him!"

"So where's the problem?

There was another silence.

"Look," I said, "Murdoch sees everything in terms of self-advancement. At an age when most people would be pottering around the garden, he still wants to rule the world. He can't bear to die before he has established himself as a major player in every country, which is why he is now planning the takeover of China. When he has done that, he will feel a bit better about dying. No, I tell a lie. I expect Rupert Murdoch sees death as another business opportunity. At this very moment, I wouldn't be surprised if he is making plans to establish footholds in heaven and hell. Can't you just see Rupert Murdoch in his last years making a takeover bid for the News of the Underworld, an ailing paper based in hell which would make a springboard for his posthumous media expansion... ?"

There was a final silence, or maybe the same silence all over again.

"If I resign from HarperCollins," said John Major, "I'd quite like you to write my resignation speech."

I think I'm back with a job again.