Leading Article: Undeleted expletives that may have come too late

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The Independent Online
IN ADVANCE of tomorrow's Christchurch by-election, few would wish to wager how long John Major will hold on to his post. His already fragile position will be weakened further if the Tories lose the seat, as expected. It is on the size of the swing, however, that the extent of the personal damage to the Prime Minister will depend. Yet the newspaper storm in recent days over comments Mr Major has made off the record to television reporters at the end of formal interviews - to Michael Brunson of ITN after his vote of confidence, and to Jonathan Dimbleby during last year's election campaign - could do him more good than harm.

Thanks to the summer circulation war between the Sun and the Daily Mirror, which obtained one tape each, anyone who wanted to hear Mr Major's words directly could do so yesterday by calling 48p-a-minute telephone lines set up for the purpose. For those who resisted the temptation, it is worth setting down what the two tapes reveal.

They fall far short of suggesting that Mr Major is a foul-mouth on the Nixon scale, apparently unable to utter a single sentence in private without an expletive. The language the Prime Minister used was not the kind that most people would want to hear from their children. It was the sort of language used in the evening between friends chatting over a drink, as John Major was with Michael Brunson.

Nor do the tapes reveal Mr Major to bear more of a grudge against his cabinet colleagues than expected. He did link three unnamed ministers with the 'bastards' on the floor of the House of Commons who are determined to get him down. But that was not news: were his Cabinet unhesitatingly behind him, the Prime Minister would have had less difficulty in seeing off the parliamentary rebels.

As to what the tapes show of Mr Major's political judgement, opinions will differ. Few will deny, however, that the Prime Minister put to Mr Brunson with untypical vividness his view that it was circumstances, rather than his own weakness, that stopped him taking a stronger line with the rebels. That argument looks unconvincing, however lucidly put. The risk of splitting the Tory party into 'smithereens' is partly the consequence of Mr Major's own actions since he became Prime Minister. Small majorities are a fact of parliamentary life.

The tapes also showed a human side to the Prime Minister. If he has any sense, he will be more careful in future what he says to television interviewers whose cameras appear switched off. But his unscripted comments have earned him public sympathy - like the tears that were photographed in Margaret Thatcher's eyes as she was driven out of Downing Street for the last time. Baroness Thatcher's tears came too late. Will the same be true of Mr Major's robust use of language?