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Impressive performance by Sir John Major at Leveson Inquiry

By Harry Phibbs
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Enoch Powell famously commented that "politicians who complain about the press are like sailors complaining about the sea." That was not the view that Sir John Major gave to the Leveson Inquiry this morning. However, Sir John did acknowledge that as Prime Minister he had been "too sensitive" towards personal criticism.

He said:

"I was much too sensitive from time to time about what the press wrote. God knows in retrospect why I was, but I was.

"I think you can explain that in human terms. If you pick up the papers each day and read a caricature of what you believe you are doing and what you believe you are then I suppose it's a basic human emotion to get a bit ratty about it."

Confident and lucid Sir John willing answered all the questions about the past. Yet he was clearly animated by what practical remedies could be offered for current difficulties.

Sir John paid lip service to "press freedom" but, understandbly perhaps, he did not really seem all that keen. He added "that must not be a licence for the press to do whatever it wishes." He gave an example of how a photograph had misleadingly presented him as dropping litter and how there should be a remedy for that. But surely there is already.  Does it not constitute libel for such a false allegation to made?

There were also political grievances. Sir John felt that the press had misrepresented his meaning in his call to go "back to basics." It had not been intended as a reference to sexual morality. No doubt it hadn't. But in a free society how can you prohibit misrepresentation? You can't. All you can do is take advantage of that freedom to respond to it for the benefit of anyone willing to listen to your response.

As well as settling some scores with the press, Sir John also used the opportunity to expose some dishonest New Labour spin doctoring. One example was a claim that he and Lord Lamont had sought to block the release of papers relating to Black Wednesday in 1992 when Britain crashed out of the ERM. Another was that he was seeking to block the removal of a knighthood from Robert Mugabe.  The policy recommendation from Sir John struck me as reasonable. He said that only career civil servants should be paid by the taxpayer as Government press officers. The role should not be given to political apparatchiks like Alastair Campbell.

I was struck by how little Sir John Major had changed. He looked the same, sounded the same. Still said "wunt." His detailed memory of events during his premiership was startling. Whether or not you agreed with him his honesty shone through - in marked contrast to Gordon Brown yesterday. Sir John took the chance to remind us of some of his broader political beliefs - "I remember as a child what it was like when the money runs out before the week runs out. That is what inflation does."

Altogether a pretty impressive performance. I was left wondering whether he could be given some useful role by the Government. (Running the National Lottery? Reviving the inner cities? Constitutional reform? European Commissioner?) Lord Heseltine, Lord Baker and Lord Young are helping out in various ways. Why hasn't Sir John been given a job?

The curtain has gone up. It is time to get back on the stage.


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