Britain's Major Faces New Enemy: a Former Friend


PEOPLE who claim the House of Commons produces some of the world's best political drama have been vindicated by the uproar over John Major's dismissal of the man who masterminded his rise to the premiership two and a half years ago.

Mr. Major's sacking of Norman Lamont on May 27, and the deposed chancellor of the exchequer's savage counterattack on June 9, have jolted an already disheartened Tory government.

Many of Major's supporters say privately that the wounds administered to the prime minister by his former friend were so deep that Major's days as Britain's leader may be numbered.

Back in November-December 1990, in the clamor caused by Margaret Thatcher's removal as prime minister, it was all very different. Major was chancellor, and Mr. Lamont his loyal deputy at the Treasury. When Michael Heseltine, a Conservative backbencher, launched a challenge for the premiership, it was the plump, beetle-browed merchant banker who began championing Major's virtues among parliamentary colleagues who would choose the next leader.

"Norman worked tirelessly for John, who started as an outsider," a senior Conservative backbencher says. "When John defeated Michael it was no surprise that he gave Norman his old job."

The Conservatives' victory in the April 1992 general election appeared to cement the two men's political alliance. Lamont devised a novel plan for reducing income tax for low-wage earners. Major stumped the country, commending his chancellor's tax cuts.

But the seeds of a falling-out were already present. According to William Keegan, a leading economic analyst, a combination of internal and external factors produced a political climate that neither man could master.

The April election had been fought against a background of deepening economic recession. Soon after he was reinstalled at the Treasury, Lamont declared that "the green shoots of recovery" were apparent.

But in subsequent months the chancellor had to explain continuing rises in unemployment and business failures, in the trade gap and the budget deficit. Then, in September, the pound came under tremendous pressure, and Britain was forced to quit the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System.

Then the government that had trounced its Labour Party opponents only six months earlier suddenly began sustaining a series of setbacks unparalleled in Britain's postwar history.

David Mellor, a senior minister, was forced to resign after a sex scandal. A plan to close nearly three dozen coal mines came under attack from government supporters in parliament and had to be shelved. Conservative parliamentarians opposed to the Maastricht Treaty on European unity began harrying the government. A case against businessmen accused of selling arms to Iraq collapsed amid evidence that the government itself was implicated in the sales.

Lamont himself was forced to admit that he had failed to pay personal credit-card bills and had accepted government money to meet a bill from his own lawyer. In March the government was defeated on a Commons vote on the Maastricht bill. Lamont introduced a budget that put heavy taxes on fuel. Two months later the Conservatives lost heavily in a key parliamentary by-election.

Despite an earlier statement that his chancellor's performance was "brilliant," Major, acting on advice from party managers, ordered a Cabinet reshuffle in which Lamont was dropped. For 12 days Lamont simmered. Then, on June 9 the House of Commons was riveted by a Lamont speech accusing Major of sheltering behind him during and after Britain's withdrawal from the ERM.

Lamont charged Major with manipulating interest rates for political advantage and claimed that the government was listening too much to pollsters and party managers.

"We get the impression of being in office but not in power," Lamont said. "Unless this approach is changed, the government will not survive - and will not deserve to survive."

Lamont's devastating remarks came as a shock to Major. They immediately preceded a Commons debate on the economy in which Major led for the government. John Smith, the Labour opposition leader, took full advantage and flayed the government.

The falling out between Major and Lamont has exposed an already unpopular prime minister to even more severe pressures. Before he sacked his chancellor, the prime minister's popularity rating had sunk to 22 percent - the lowest since polling began. Yesterday it had fallen to 16 percent.

A personal attack on Lamont by Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, for having made a "dud" and "nasty" speech, drew a vitriolic response. Through an intermediary, Lamont told Major that unless attacks stopped, he would make more disclosures. On the same day, Major told parliament that the uproar caused by Lamont's sacking was only a "little local difficulty," but the senior Conservatives suggest otherwise.

Sir Marcus Fox, influential chairman of the Conservative Party's backbench parliamentary committee, said a challenge to Major's leadership in the autumn was "unlikely," but conceded that Lamont's analysis of Major's performance reflected the concern of some Conservative parliamentarians.

Another leading Conservative said privately that Major had "one year to prove himself," and that if he failed to do so, he could "expect a challenge" next year.

Lamont meanwhile has told colleagues that he plans to be an active critic of Major if he thinks criticism is warranted. With tax increases and heavy public spending cuts probable in the autumn, Major's former friend may not lack things to complain about.

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