Revenge of the lightning conductor

Click to follow

In Office by Norman Lamont (Little, Brown £20)

In Office by Norman Lamont (Little, Brown £20)

Many Tory ministers have settled well amid the lengthening shadows, savouring old friendships, fine wine, books, and reflections, not just on regrets butalso achievements. For Norman Lamont, it is time to draw blood. While his book is highly engaging - for sparkling observation, wit, vehemence, colourand soap-opera appeal, it belongs in the top drawer of political memoirs - he betrays a determination to inflame and also an almost monolithic lack ofregret for mistakes made. In aggregate, he reveals much about himself and the milieu he frequented.

It is greatly to Lamont's disadvantage that his text smacks so much of a frivolous work by an essentially frivolous person. It is substantially unhelpful thata Chancellor so associated with unemployment and demolished house prices liked his office in HM Treasury because there "you could practise putting".It will be hard for many to warm to a minister who uprated child benefit not out of humanity but because of fears of legal action, who dislikes accounts of"how people went to school with no shoes". His priorities - alibis and high living - are clear.

But his account is, curiously, a serious one, a cautionary tale where Lamont documents his own destruction by a grandmaster tactician in recompense forerrors committed by both men. The cataloguing of Major's virtually frictionless slipperiness is most welcome, and long overdue. Lamont nails him earlyand often for perennial fiendishness outlandish even by Westminster standards. Early on, Lamont was unmoved by the Brixton boy's protestations ofmoderate ambition. Seeking votes in a possible leadership contest, Major was "always rushing off to speak at some dining club in the north of England atthe request of a backbench MP". Later, the "nice" Prime Minister would brief, undermine, obfuscate, hint, agree with everyone and do everything withinhis reach to retain power. The accusations sound plausible. Since 1997, while colleagues have suffered almost Promethean agonies, Major's survivalinstincts have continued. He travels. He lectures at Harvard on foreign policy. He earns large fees.

Not only is Major now in the Emma Noble Hello! premier celebrity class, "he's made millions, you know". Black Wednesday defined the Tories' decade.Lamont splats most guilt onto his old boss, time-wasting while billion after billion of public cash rolled down the pan. Ken Clarke is fingered for claimingministerial ignorance of market movements; Lamont insists his ample colleague had pocketed a monitor providing minute-by-minute updates. TheBundesbank played foul. So, it seems, did everyone else.

The galumphing stampede to blame others is nothing new. But the scapegoating is largely irrelevant. The fact stands that Major, Lamont, Clarke andothers were present. All suffered partially from the ensuing carnage. Anyone who genuinely disagreed with the ferociously damaging Exchange RateMechanism policy could have spoken out much earlier; they could even have resigned.

It is equally purposeless to blame the Germans. The Bundesbank, certainly, was no ERM fan-club; the last responsibility many German bankers desiredwas for an outsize collection of partner economies. But even the duly demonised Germans could not have wrought such havoc had the strategy itself notbeen so unambiguously misguided.

The truth was that by September 1992 the UK had suffered a wretchedly overvalued exchange rate and - the Lawson-era inflation now largely squashed -outlandishly high real interest rates for over 12 months. Devaluation in 1991 was blocked by Lamont's suspiciously superficial assumption that it wouldlead to higher interest rates - and by Major's celebrated fits of foaming rage whenever the notion was raised. Both men were wrong and out of their depth.Currency realignments had been a staple ERM occurrence for years. No one would have blinked. The Tories had only themselves to blame.

Lamont's own perilous optimism now doomed him. He should have resigned instantly, following Callaghan's 1967 precedent; the latter subsequentlyoccupied three great offices of state. But Lamont fell, like so many others, under Major's spell. He was, said Major, the "lightning conductor". He stayed,swaying in the breeze. Eight months later, the buck-passing manoeuvre complete, it was time, finally, to dispose of Lamont.

Genuine heavies such as Lawson and Clarke would have seen this fate well in advance. Strikingly, Lamont opens this book with the 1990 leadershipelection. A sharper operator would have started page one by claiming full responsibility for current prosperity - which indeed originated among themonetary reorganisations Lamont implemented in October 1992. He instead quotes a Notting Hill dosser he overheard muttering "someone else is gettingthe credit". They certainly did.

Lamont will be remembered more for Miss Whiplash; his lack of circumspection often burgeoned more than political safety regulations permitted. At therecession's pit in May 1992 he used Number 11 to throw an unprecedented 50th birthday celebration - for himself. Even in 1995 he was filmed swiggingchampagne on the Commons terrace: "It was a reminder of how careful one had to be."

This particular slew of memoirs will soon pass. But the Tories' problem is not so much this book, nor Mr Major's, but changes in the party itself. Nothinglike the current pie-throwing frenzy developed when the party was last in opposition. The 1974 defeat may have been smaller, but eviction from office bythe miners had been at least equally traumatising. There was no ex-Chancellor rushing to print to blame Edward Heath for threatened hyperinflation. Therewere no missiles aimed by spotty teenage activists at former ministers daring to debate the issues.

Nor does experience suggest that renewed pungent Thatcherism will succeed. Indeed, Lamont argues succinctly against rash pledges to cut spending as apercentage of GDP. In 1979 - after several wobbles and the help of Callaghan's final winter - the Tories only regained a moderate majority with apredominantly genial, pro-European, virtually privatisation-free manifesto, and the balancing of Mrs Thatcher with a reassuring phalanx of old-fashioned,patrician former ministers.

These gentler, more sensible Tories still exist. But many, given the unappealing prospects they have in the party's front line, are open to Mr Blair'stemptations. Given the chance to abscond - Messrs Patten, Rifkind and Clarke are among the major league players not in full harness - they have doneprecisely that, taking non-partisan jobs, securing their pensions, or calmly sitting at home.

By contrast, the neon-lit Norman Lamont remains an unwelcome Tory mascot, a bloke who may have caused significant numbers of pensioner deaths infreezing homes each winter by introducing VAT on fuel. Britain's previously hard-won zero VAT fuel rating will never be prised back from the EU - anextraordinary blunder from a self-proclaimed patriot - and it is for this horrible policy that the Major/Lamont years will be remembered.

Lamont expends not one syllable fearing for the vulnerable. The policy was the "biggest revenue earner in the budget". This man lost a lot of people theirlivelihoods, many others their homes. Maybe his seeming disregard for fellow citizens arises because he believes politics is simply another game, anothercountry-house extravaganza. His book is a timely reminder of why the country was so ecstatic to see the back of his party. For him, office may have beenthe good old days. It's a good thing those days are over now.