Impressionist Rory Bremner may have accidentally torpedoed a backbench revolt against Prime Minister John Major, according to official files released today.
The Channel 4 comedian telephoned rebel MPs as an “experiment” to see if his impersonation could convince people who knew the premier.
But his appeal for support sounded so genuine the rebels agreed to “lay off” and help to carry the Government through.
Bremner made the calls in October 1993 ahead of the launch of his new show – just as Mr Major was preparing for a rough ride from Eurosceptics at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool.
The comedian rang MPs Sir Richard Body, John Carlisle and Ann Winterton, claiming to be the premier calling from Malaysia, where he was on an official visit.
When one of the MPs then contacted No10, Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler immediately tried to alert them the calls were hoaxes.
However Sir Richard in particular was sufficiently duped by Bremner’s impersonation he refused to accept he had not been speaking to Mr Major.
According to the official note of their conversation, he told Sir Robin it was “a very good thing” Mr Major had called.
He said he had spoken afterwards to Mr Carlisle and they had agreed they should back the PM and help the government through.
“They had spoken to their ‘whips’ (Body indicated that he meant the unofficial whips of their group). They had taken the heat off the Prime Minister,” the note said.
“If John Major had made that call, he had done himself a good turn. Butler said that he had not made that call.
“Body replied, ‘Well, you say that. But I can’t find any reason to criticise him for doing so. He had ‘rung around’ and they had ‘all agreed to lay off”.”
When Sir Robin told him Mr Major’s itinerary meant it was “physically impossible” for him to have made the calls, Sir Richard insisted he must have “slipped away” to do so.
“Body repeated that he did not think this was an impressionist,” the note said.
“Butler should tell the Prime Minister that the call had saved his bacon. ‘We sent word around to back him up at least until after the conference. He was obviously in a bad state. Now he is obviously regretting it. But I know his voice.”‘
Meanwhile, world leaders were dismayed by Mr Major’s gamble to challenge his Tory critics to a leadership contest.
In summer 1995 the PM, who is now Sir John, became so exasperated with attacks from Conservative Eurosceptics he triggered a leadership race, inviting his opponents to “put up or shut up”.
Welsh Secretary John Redwood, one of the Cabinet Eurosceptics famously dubbed “bastards” by Mr Major, took up the gauntlet.
While Mr Major was confident of victory, papers released by the National Archives show the announcement was greeted by nervousness in European capitals.
Irish premier John Bruton was “watching developments avidly and with close concern” while US President Bill Clinton was offering to make a supportive intervention “if the bureaucrats allowed it”, according to files.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was said to be particularly concerned at the prospect that Mr Major could be ousted.
“Helmut was very grateful for the inside story and was crossing all his fingers (I said you wouldn’t need them!),” an aide noted.
The files released today also document the PM’s well-known love of cricket.
But in the summer of 1996 he had to turn down an invitation to bowl the first ball of the Sir Garfield Sobers International Schools Cricket Tournament in the Caribbean.
“Few things would have given me more pleasure than to bowl the first ball and take the opportunity for a holiday in Barbados with Norma,” Mr Major told his Barbadian counterpart in a letter.
“It is correspondingly painful to have to tell you that I will simply not be able to manage it. July is a particularly busy time for me and it is impossible to get away.
“I am nevertheless enormously grateful for your kind invitation.”
In a handwritten note, the PM added: “Oh, how sad!
“I would have loved to come – I’d love to see Barbados (and cricket) and one day I will!”