Prank phone calls by a celebrity impressionist inadvertently persuaded two Tory MPs to ease their opposition to then prime minister John Major’s push for closer relations with Europe, newly released official documents reveal.
Conservative MPs John Carlisle and Sir Richard Body believed they were speaking to Mr Major in separate phone calls in September 1993.
The conversations persuaded the two profoundly Eurosceptic MPs to “take the heat off” the prime minister, after months of opposing his position on Europe and particularly the Maastricht treaty, which formed the basis of EU integration and had been narrowly passed by parliament in July 1993.
What the two men did not realise, however, was that they had not been speaking to Mr Major: the voice at the end of the line had been Rory Bremner — a noted political impersonator working at the time with Channel 4 television.
Records at the National Archives show that during the conversation, Mr Bremner asked the MPs for their support, arguing that they would rather have Mr Major carry them through the election than have Ken Clarke, then chancellor, as prime minister.
The calls did not make it on to Mr Bremner’s television show, which aired in October 1993. But they did have a positive impact for the prime minister.
On the back of the conversations Sir Richard and a more sceptical Mr Carlisle agreed they should “back the prime minister up”. Both men rang up fellow Eurosceptic critics and “agreed to lay off” Mr Major.
“The call has saved him,” Sir Richard said, according to the documents. “Otherwise the prime minister would have had hell from us.”
Although Mr Carlisle and Sir Richard continued to oppose the prime minister in Tory infighting over Europe, after the call they pledged to support him during the 1993 Conservative party conference.
In a later letter to Mr Carlisle, the producers of Mr Bremner’s programme said the call had been an “experiment” to test out the impersonation of Mr Major.
The documents show that Sir Richard, now deceased, was so taken in by Mr Bremner that he did not believe then-cabinet secretary Robin Butler when he revealed the call had been a hoax.
“I know his voice,” Sir Richard later said of the caller. “It couldn’t have been a couple of journalists.”
Details revealed in the archive documents appear to justify the fears of some Conservative MPs that impersonators could interfere with politics with convincing impressions of well-known figures.
Following the incident with Mr Bremner, Sir Robin complained to Channel 4 boss Michael Grade, who said he would require personal sign-off for any further impersonations of the prime minister and would not agree to any that “touched on political matters”.
It is unclear whether the left-leaning Mr Bremner intended to secure a reprieve for the prime minister, and it appears the effect may have been unintentional.
Responding to the revelation this week, Mr Bremner said he had “no idea” he had “thwarted a rebellion and saved John Major’s bacon”.
“You think you’re being satirical but the reality is even more farcical,” he said. “Honestly, who’d have thought that without a spoof phone call, a group of Eurosceptic backbenchers might have forced the PM to resign and taken us out of the EU. What are the chances of that?”