British tabloids bring down Major's 'Rottweiler'

September 25, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- David Mellor took pride in his reputation as the Rottweiler of the House of Commons, the pugnacious and jowly minister in John Major's government who once threatened the press for invading the privacy of members of the royal family.

The other day, after weeks of pounding by the tabloids, he asked rhetorically just who it was in Britain who decided who remained in and who left the Cabinet, the tabloids or the prime minister.

Yesterday he got the answer he probably never expected.

Despite his arrogance, Mr. Mellor was thought to have a promising future in Conservative Party politics. He was only 43 and already the Minister of National Heritage, whose office oversees cultural affairs and formulates information policy.

Then he met the willowy actress Antonia de Sancha, had an affair with her and got found out. Suddenly he was at the center of a full-fledged sex scandal.

But since Mr. Mellor, who is married and has two children, was a friend of Prime Minister Major, he survived repeated calls for his resignation. He suddenly became eager to have his picture taken hugging his wife, cuddling his young children.

Such affairs had felled better men than Mr. Mellor, men such as John Profumo, the war secretary who in 1963 resigned over his dalliance with Christine Keeler, though there was a national security dimension to that which made it more serious than Mr. Mellor's fling.

But it seemed he had other problems. He was not averse to taking gifts, small things from real estate interests, like the free use of expensive chauffeured automobiles during the April election campaign; like a free all-expenses-paid vacation in Spain for himself and his whole family, paid for by Mona Bauwens, the daughter of an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization; like a similar, and far more sumptuous, sojourn in Abu Dhabi on the account of Sheik Zayid ibn Sultan al-Nuhayyan, who had connections with the defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

The tabloids reported it all, exaggerated to unprecedented degrees. The word around town was that, yes, they intended to see Mr. Mellor off. They did not like the thought that privacy legislation to control the press might be introduced. After all, that was what Mr. Mellor had hinted he would do when he warned the newspapers that they were "drinking in the Last Chance Saloon."

Also, since the April general election many tabloid editors and publishers here are convinced they were instrumental in returning the Tories to power. Neil Kinnock, the defeated Labor Party leader, said as much in his post-election bitterness.

This is something neither Mr. Major nor other Tory leaders are prepared to accept, and until yesterday the prime minister seemed ready to back Mr. Mellor to the hilt.

But two things happened: First, Mr. Mellor had been rendered by the tabloids into such a pathetic figure that many influential Tories decided he was doing the party no good; second, Mr. Major got hit with a huge financial crisis. Evidently he decided the party had enough to cope with.

Yesterday, as the prime minister entered the House of Commons to defend his failed economic policy before a furious Labor onslaught, and deal with a dissension from his European policy spreading through his own party, the Rottweiler was not on the front bench where Cabinet ministers are seated.

He had already been defanged.

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