It's Black Monday for Lamont as Major's book rates higher interest among readers readers

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The Independent Culture

By Paul WaughPolitical Correspondent

By Paul WaughPolitical Correspondent

12 October 1999

IT WAS billed as the battle of the dinosaurs, but in the end there was no contest.

As they officially launched their memoirs within minutes of each other in central London yesterday, John Major's lumbering brontosaurus scored a knock-out victory over Lord Lamont's armour-plated stegosaurus.

The placid giant of the Westminster jungle emerged unscathed, whereas his former chancellor ended up, not for the first time, with a black eye. Oh, yes.

While the former prime minister's book, imaginatively titled John Major: The Autobiography (HarperCollins, £25), drew hundreds of willing punters to his launch, Lord Lamont was lucky to get more than five takers for his tome, In Office (Little, Brown, £20).

The launches followed weeks of sparring between the two men as they bitterly attacked each other's handling of the Black Wednesday fiasco, when Britain crashed out of the exchange rate mechanism.

Lord Lamont's book openly criticises Mr Major's reaction to the crisis in 1992, claiming that he "dithered" and as a result cost the nation billions of pounds.

The former prime minister, however, counters, in his book and in The Major Years, a BBC documentary that began last night, by calling his chancellor's version of events "ridiculous".

Like witnesses to a multiple car accident, each man has a completely different account of the disaster that tarnished the Tories' reputation for economic competence and ultimately led to the Labour landslide of 1997.

Similarly, the contrast between their book-signings yesterday could not have been greater, with Mr Major giving a statesmanlike signing in the refined surroundings of Hatchards bookshop, while his bushy-eyebrowed foe opted for the brasher venue of Harrods.

Mr Major's instructions to the photographers at his launch - "Tell you what, let's do a deal. Why don't we go from right to centre and then left?" - may have sounded to Thatcherite ears like a summary of his premiership.

But with queues snaking up three flights of Hatchards' elegant staircases in Piccadilly, he looked not inconsiderably pleased with himself.

Roger Katz, general manager of Hatchards, revealed that Mr Major had chosen his store for the launch because he often popped in while premier, to escape the cares of office.

"He was a regular customer; when he was Prime Minister he often used to come in for 20 minutes. He bought Trollope and good crime. I think we were his light entertainment."

Looking relaxed amid the crowd of photographers, Mr Major joked: "This is just like old times," adding, "This is turning into a one-man show."

And one-man show it was, as, just a five-minute Tube ride away in Harrods, Lord Lamont sat at an oak table piled high with copies of his book.

While there was not quite the whistling of tumbleweed past his deserted desk, there was certainly no Harrods sale stampede to greet Thresher's favourite customer.

Mr Major reveals in his memoirs that the two men have not spoken since he fired Lord Lamont from his Cabinet in 1993, but the former chancellor yesterday refuted the claim. They had exchanged pleasantries at least twice since then, he said.

The two books have overshadowed the Tory party conference, but Lord Lamont denied he had planned his launch to coincide with Mr Major's - though he did remark: "It amuses me."

And Lord Lamont could not resist taunting his former colleague over that Wednesday.

"I don't think it was because he didn't trust my judgement on that Wednesday. He simply felt that a decision of that magnitude was a political one and should be shared," he said. "It was a very expensive decision."

One person who found her loyalties torn by the two signings was Katrina Yeoh, of Notting Hill, west London, who dashed between the two book-signings, in a remarkable act of political loyalty.

The antiques seller said: "I know Mr Lamont was sacked and I feel sorry for him. But I am a Conservative and I like them both. I don't like Mr Hague - he is too soft. I like a husky voice; I would rather see Michael Portillo in charge."



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Changing Trains, by Steven Norris. Dubbed "Changing Dames" by critics of the mistress-laden former Transport minister, but an excellent read.


The Crossman Diaries. First, and some say the best, of the genre.



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Conflict of Loyalty, by Geoffrey Howe. Reading this is like being savaged by a deceased woolly herbivore.


Ministers Decide, by Norman Fowler. Possibly the worst selling political work of all time. Even the paperback is now out of print.


The Enterprise Years, by Sir George Young.Truly awful.


The Labour Government 1964-70, by Harold Wilson.

Not a single joke in its staggeringly long 993 pages.