Newly released Cabinet papers reveal John Major told his ministers to avoid attending a “jamboree” for Rupert Murdoch, only to have his home secretary Michael Howard go anyway after refusing to catch a “diplomatic cold” as a polite excuse for not turning up.
Mr Howard was at the time suspected of being one of the “bastards” referred to by Mr Major while venting his frustrations about three unnamed Eurosceptic cabinet ministers in off-the-record remarks picked up by TV microphones in July 1993.
Mr Major also knew the Murdoch-owned Sun had backed Mr Howard during the bastards controversy, saying his “gut instinct for the way ordinary people think” made him a contender for the tabloid’s preferred candidate for prime minister.
The same editorial had called Mr Major a “spiteful political pigmy”, while an accompanying Richard Littlejohn column suggested the then prime minister had a secret double life as: “A traffic warden called Eric Blenkinsop, living a lonely existence in a bed-sit in Scunthorpe, with only his three cats and his subscription to Health and Efficiency for company”.
Both articles were among a bundle of unflattering cuttings sent to Mr Major by his press secretary Gus O’Donnell ahead of a meeting with Mr Murdoch on 19 August 1993.
When two weeks later Mr Howard attended Mr Murdoch’s jamboree, which was timed to coincide with the launch of nine new Sky TV channels, it attracted comment from Mr Major’s private secretary Roderic Lyne.
“You decided we should discourage cabinet ministers from attending Rupert Murdoch’s 1 September jamboree,” Mr Lyne wrote to Mr Major. “When I had a quiet word with the home secretary’s office, they told me he had already accepted the invitation.
“I suggested the he might catch a diplomatic chill. He evidently decided otherwise.”
“Far be it for me to judge,” added Mr Lyne. “His attendance at the dinner was noted, see attached front page article from the [Murdoch-owned] Times, but not hugely exploited.”
In a handwritten note written to Mr Major on the eve of the jamboree, Mr Howard explained his attendance by saying: “On Thursday morning I am due to give a press conference on press privatisation. So any ‘chill’ would be very conspicuously ‘diplomatic’. There would be an obvious risk of comment speculation.”
Mr Howard added: “More fundamentally this does raise the question of what tactics we should adopt towards the Murdoch press.
“I hope I need hardly say I fully share your dismay at their behaviour since the  election.
“But we shall need them at the next election. And given the unpalatable (to them) nature of some of the things we are likely to be doing quite soon – Calcutt [recommendations on press self-regulation], VAT [on newspapers] – the case for some harmless costless gesture such as attending a dinner seems to be quite strong.”
The newly released files, now in the National Archives at Kew, offer fresh detail on the Major government’s tortured relationship with the Murdoch empire. They show officials describing the Murdoch papers as irrational while still hoping for helpful coverage, including from the tabloid that after the 1992 election had claimed: “It’s The Sun wot won it”.
Briefing the prime minister ahead of his August 1993 meeting with Mr Murdoch, Mr O’Donnell wrote: “I was surprised to learn, given the worldwide scale of his business, that he phones [Sun editor] Kelvin MacKenzie most days to keep up to date with the British scene.
“God alone knows what Kelvin tells him, as he is often very poorly informed.”
At a time when Mr Major was trying to hold together a 21-seat majority in the teeth of rebellions by his more right-wing and Eurosceptic MPs, Mr O’Donnell advised the prime minister to tell the media tycoon: “Your papers have made matters worse.
“They have ceased to make rational criticisms of policy. They are now simply anti-everything and anti-me in particular.
“This is bad for economic confidence and hence, bad for business.”
Seeming to inject an element of threat into what Mr Major should say, Mr O’Donnell added: “Conservative MPs now see no reason to be helpful to media. (Pressure growing over privacy rules, VAT on newspapers, cross-ownership. I am not keen to move on any of these areas but MPs from all parties becoming increasingly attracted to them.)”
According to Mr Mackenzie, when Mr Major phoned to ask how The Sun would be covering that day’s chaos, he replied: “Well, John, let me put it this way - I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.”
Twenty years later the former prime minister told the Leveson Inquiry that Mr MacKenzie’s account of the phone call had caused him “a degree of wonder and surprise” because “I frankly can’t recall the bit that has entered mythology”.
Mr Major did, however, admit: “I was much too sensitive from time to time about what the press wrote. It was a basic human emotion to get a bit ratty about it.
“The press to me at the time was a source of wonder. I woke up each morning and I opened the morning papers and I learned what I thought, what I didn’t think, what I said, what I hadn’t said, what I was about to do, what I wasn’t about to do.”
Sir John told the Leveson Inquiry that he met Mr Murdoch three times while prime minister: in 1992, 1993 and just before the 1997 election.
“It was suggested to me I ought to try to make some effort to get closer to the Murdoch papers,” he said of the February 1997 meeting. “I agreed I would invite Mr Murdoch to dinner.
“It is not often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says to a prime minister ‘I would like you to change your policy or my organisation cannot support you.'”
He told the inquiry he thought that having too close a relationship with the press was “rather undignified” – and that after the Black Wednesday conversation, he never phoned Kelvin MacKenzie again.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies