When John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, some wondered whether he would ever prove himself half the man the Iron Lady had been. Edwina Currie's newly published diaries in which the novelist and former Conservative minister reveals that she and Major had an affair from 1984 to '88 should ensure that the former Tory leader will never again be so easily underestimated. Since the book came out, Currie has added details about the liaison, including how she and Major planned assignations as they sat behind Thatcher during Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons. The disclosures may have revised his reputation, but they could also land him in legal trouble. In 1993 Major sued the New Statesman and Scallywag magazines for libel over articles suggesting he was having an affair with a Downing Street caterer. The basis of Major's claim: It was unthinkable he would commit adultery.
The cases never went to trial like most libel actions, they were settled out of court. But both publications incurred debilitating costs. Scallywag eventually went bust; the New Statesman neared bankruptcy after paying over £200,000 to defend the action. The total bill included £1,001 in damages to Major, his legal costs and the costs of the distributors and publishers accused of disseminating libel. With Major's past now in the open, there is a chink in his armor. "Mr. Major is now an admitted adulterer and therefore the sting of the libel was true," says libel law expert Mark Stephens. "We could see a situation where he's not only going to have to return the money, but the case could be reopened because it was settled on a false premise." The New Statesman has initiated action. "A claim will be made for reimbursement," says the magazine's lawyer, Geoffrey Bindman. "We're still discussing how the case will be formulated."
Major's legal tussles highlight flaws in Britain's libel laws. "The main problem is that the defendant who is sued has to prove truth," says expert Geoffrey Robertson. This, he says, invites plaintiffs who are "prepared to lie and know that the media can't prove otherwise." In the absence of reforms that shift the burden of proof, says Robertson, piecemeal measures will have to suffice to protect freedom of expression: "One of the few things that can be done is to punish people who use libel laws as a form of gold digging. Those caught lying in the course of libel actions should be prosecuted."
That's exactly what happened to Jeffrey Archer, the best-selling novelist and former Conservative Party deputy chairman, who in 1987 won £500,000 from Express Newspapers for allegations that he had slept with a prostitute. Archer, now serving a four-year sentence for perjury in the case, last week finished repaying that sum plus damages, costs and interest. Former Tory cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken also served time for perjuring himself during a libel action he brought against the Guardian, which had accused him of accepting gifts. By 1999 Aitken was bankrupt, his legal bill still unpaid.
Since Major's libel actions never came to trial and because they predated a change in the law that since 1997 requires parties to a civil action to sign a statement of truth he is unlikely to face a perjury prosecution. But that doesn't mean he can breathe easily. As Stephens points out, "one of the lines of investigation the New Statesman's lawyers might undertake is to ascertain whether the documents in the original cases reveal a deception being perpetrated. If that were the case, it would be open to them to bring a private prosecution." Court filings relating to the original actions were hurriedly unearthed last week from storage facilities, but New Statesman lawyer Bindman says that "at this point" the magazine "is not concerned about bringing criminal proceedings; its concern is to get its money back." The boost to Major's reputation could be fleeting too. The wimp factor is resurfacing. "Major's a Weak Coward," blared the headline of the Mirror, one of the tabloids to which Clare Latimer, the woman he was rumored to be involved with back in 1993, vented her anger at the unmanly way Major had used her as a legal "decoy." Now that must really rankle