Major and Murdoch - Will he pull the book? Will he see the story? Will he get the joke?

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IT HAS BEEN a very tense weekend for me. I haven't mentioned this before, but I have spent a lot of time recently working with John Major on his forthcoming autobiography (I do the jokes, he does the owning up and apologising ) and so when this HarperCollins fuss broke, I naturally wondered if my cushy little number had come to an end.

Mark you, the news reports did say that many leading writers were thinking of leaving HarperCollins in protest against Murdoch's high-handedness, and that obviously wouldn't include John Major, who has never been thought of as a writer of any kind. On the other hand, publishers always think it's a great coup to secure the memoirs of the outgoing prime minister. (Not many people realise that the reason Rupert Murdoch is toadying up to Tony Blair, and vice versa, is so that HarperCollins can get first bite at the Blair autobiography after he leaves Downing Street. Oh, yes, old Rupert plans way ahead.) So Major's book remains a big catch for Murdoch.

So I didn't want John Major withdrawing from the big league.

Especially if I was still working with him.

Anyway, I gave him a ring at the weekend to see how the land lay. Mr Major is still understandably cautious about being rung up, but we have a code we use to identify each other. It goes like this.

Major: Hello, Prime Minister speaking...

Me: Not any more, I'm afraid, sir...

Major: My goodness, no, you're right!

We chatted about this and that (cricket, mostly ) and then I popped the big question.

"So, what about this HarperCollins business, then?"

"Well," said the ex-premier, "thanks for the last lot of jokes, though I'm afraid I didn't quite understand that one about Norman Lamont and the one-legged nun. Could you explain it again?"

"I'm not really talking about the writing of our book, sir. I was thinking about this fuss about Chris Patten and Rupert Murdoch."

"What fuss ?"

"It was in all the papers."

"Not in my paper."

Of course, I remembered then that Mr Major gets The Times. So I found myself having to explain the whole thing to Mr Major, about how his friend Chris had had his book chucked out by Murdoch's company because it was very rude about the Chinese top brass with whom Mr Murdoch hopes to deal, and how some writers were threatening to leave HarperCollins in sympathy.

"So you see, sir," I said, "this puts you in a situation of some delicacy."

"I see," said Mr Major. "You mean, I will now have to go through my book taking out all rude remarks about the Chinese?"

"Not really," I said. "What it means is that you may have to reconsider your position."

"Oh, come on!" said Mr Major. "When I was in politics, that was shorthand for thinking about resigning!"

"That's what I'm talking about."

"Resigning from what?"

Patiently I explained that some people might expect him to take his book away from HarperCollins, partly in protest against Murdoch's dictatorship, partly in sympathy with his old chum Chris and partly in protest against the presence of an illiterate capital C in the middle of the word HarperCollins.

"Why should I resign?" said Mr Major hotly. "I have done nothing wrong! I do not see this as a resigning matter!"

"With respect, sir," I said, "you're behaving as if you were still in charge. Nobody is asking you to resign as an admission of failure. But there are other kinds of resignation besides resignation at the top. There might be pressure on you to resign in protest against what the man in charge is doing. Namely, Mr Rupert Murdoch. Or, as he is known inside the Vatican, Sir Rupert Murdoch."

There was a silence at this. I could have bit my lip. I should know better by now than to try jokes on Mr Major.

"I'll ring you back on this one," he said, and rang off.

When he does come back to me, I'll try testing his moral stance by asking him if he intends to resign from the MCC over their refusal to admit women, which he has publicly condemned. I'll let you know which way he jumps.

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