You what? I cried, are you not a director of Rothschild, the merchant bank? Do they not supply you with a flash car? Nope. He goes each day to their City office by Tube. 'My wife and I have always bought second-hand cars,' he said, lighting a cigar. 'New cars are a waste of money.'
Imagine any cabinet minister saying such a thing. He'd have the whole car industry on his head. But here is Mr Lamont, six months out of office, speaking like a normal human being.
Mr Lamont delivered the last three Budgets in the days when he moved around the globe in his government Jaguar, when doors opened, flunkeys called him Chancellor, and the brains of the Treasury waited on his will.
I hope you can bag a good seat in the House for this Budget, as in many ways it is yours. You left us taxes to come, and you created this new Unified Budget, combining the Autumn Statement with the traditional spring Budget, letting the Chancellor deal with revenue and expenditure at the same time.
'No, I won't be in the House.'
Chicken? Or simple embarrassment?
'I'm joining the ITN team commenting on the Budget. I'll be in their studio the whole afternoon. They invited me and it seemed a worthwhile thing to do, explaining what's happening, as I know the background so well. And I shall enjoy it.'
You haven't done much broadcasting, since your, er, change of life, not like your ex-colleague, D Mellor, who seems to be everywhere. 'I don't need to appear on TV to know I'm alive.'
Jowly smile, another cigar, but this time he did try to open a window of his magnificent office - his MP's office, not his Rothschild one. It's on the corner of Parliament Square, panoramic view of Big Ben and Westminster Bridge, beautifully appointed. First he sat down in an easy chair, then said, would I mind if he sat behind his desk? Not trying to be important - he might fall asleep in an easy chair. His secretary had flu, so he was taking his own calls. When he did, I examined his room for any personal objects. An empty glass cabinet, hardly any books, nothing on the walls; strange, considering he's had this room since June. Perhaps he thinks he's only passing through. A book on De Gaulle, a little bust of Disraeli, pretty corny heroes - but what's that in the corner? A battered red dispatch box, inscribed 'Chancellor of the Exchequer'. Could this be the very one our new Chancellor will be carrying this afternoon? No, that's smaller, and dates back to Gladstone, and is only used for Budget Days. Each Chancellor has five or six larger ones for carrying home the daily documents. Traditionally, they get given one on leaving, as a present. His was lying open, but empty. No, not symbolic: the lock's wonky. He got it open, but doesn't want to close it again.
'I only received it last week. I was given a small lunch party by some senior civil servants at the Treasury. I did have a big party on the day I left, but there was no time for presents, as it was, er, rather sudden. They presented me with the red box and a framed print of Disraeli aged 25, in pantaloons, smoking an opium pipe. Last Christmas, I wanted to use it as the Treasury's official Christmas card, but I was talked out of it by Sir Terry Burns (the Permanent Secretary). It was thought someone smoking opium was not quite suitable. Pity, really.'
Mr Lamont looked so dour, so worried, so worn, in most of his public appearances as Chancellor that it is hard to imagine him in private thinking up such fun, but then he is a paradoxical figure. Pessimistic, Calvinistic on one hand; fun-lover and party-goer on the other. 'I'm not sure I would call myself a pessimist, but I do have a fairly cynical view of human nature. But it is true I enjoy social life and like parties. A lot of people in politics like parties. But I work hard as well.'
His return to Rothschild, where he worked for 11 years before entering government, has been criticised on the grounds that he has taken with him inside knowledge, for his own gain, acquired at our expense. 'A ridiculous criticism. Why shouldn't I return to my old job? I need to earn a living, but I make sure I do not deal with the UK Government - only with exports and foreign dealings.'
There is a chance that he could lose his political living. Tomorrow he is going to a meeting in his constituency, Kingston upon Thames, that could decide his future. The constituency is due to disappear, unless an appeal to the Boundary Commissioners succeeds, which is unlikely. He would have to find another seat, start again with different folk. Hm, bit of a comedown, for a late Chancellor.
I'd jack it in if I were you, Norman. You've had a distinguished career, youngest Tory MP at 29, seven years at the Treasury, yet you're only 51: time to start a new career, don't you think? Bugger an ungrateful nation, or should I say an ungrateful PM?
He had the grace to smile, or what looked like a smile through the cigar haze. Then he remembered who he was.
'I'm a politician. I'm very interested in politics, always have been, and wish to continue. I enjoy life in the House of Commons. I wish to hold office again. Circumstances change in politics, as history has shown us. In politics, one can recover from anything. Politics is an uncertain journey. If you have not been in the valleys, you can't appreciate the mountain tops '
It was, of course, Mr Lamont who led John Major's leadership bid, so it must have been pretty sickening when the axe fell, the knife went in. By the way, what cliche do you use when you think back to the events of 27 May? 'I don't have a word. 'My Downfall', I suppose, but I still haven't found a suitable pudding to be named after it.'
A private joke. A friend of his gave a dinner party for Edward Heath, after his fall, and baked a special chocolate cake. It had no name at the time, but from then on it's been known among their friends as Downfall Pudding. See, a load of fun, Lamont's life, behind the scenes.
You must, as they say, have discovered your real friends, these past six months. 'Oh yes,' he said, smiling to himself. 'But I always knew certain people would disappear. I remember saying to Rosemary one night at the opera, when we were with someone, that this someone would disappear, were I not Chancellor.' Some grandee presumably, or royal personage? Alas, he wouldn't tell me
Of his Cambridge chums, he has seen nothing socially of Kenneth Clarke, but he is still close to Michael Howard. (They were best men at each other's weddings.) In the summer, he had a family holiday with Peter Lilley, at Lilley's Normandy home. 'If your friends are in and you are out, you can't expect to see much of them. The Cabinet is a closed body. I understand that. If you're out, as I am, all one can do is press one's nose up against the window.
He beamed at his own image of himself, then took a social call, dealing with it sharply, saying he couldn't make it. How about the PM, your old chum? Seen him around the block? 'Yes, from about a hundred yards away, but we haven't exchanged words.' Is he avoiding you, or you him? 'I don't wish to discuss that matter further.'
It was his mother, now a widow, aged 83,who broke the news. He'd rung her, being a dutiful only child, and told her what was about to happen. She'd then told the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. Were you furious with her? 'No opinion,' he said. Funny reply, as if I'd asked a different question, so I asked again. 'I didn't care. It was of complete indifference to me when the world discovered what had happened.'
His resignation speech, 10 days later, was a minor masterpiece of getting his own back on the Government. 'Too much reacting to events, not enough shaping of events we give the impression of being in office, but not in power.' Written by your good self? 'Of course. Why do you suggest otherwise?'
In it, he said that the PM had offered him another position in the Cabinet, without naming it. Is that because the PM had not spelt it out? 'Oh yes he did. It was Environment - and he tried hard to persuade me to take it.' Do you regret now that you didn't? 'No, I'm enjoying the rest. There are certain compensations, such as less pressure.' He paused, looking out at Big Ben. 'But it so happens I like pressure.'
Then would you accept something now, if it were offered? 'Not tomorrow.' What does that mean? 'Not tomorrow,' he repeated. Am I to understand, then, that you wouldn't return under the present Prime Minister? He didn't reply.
You haven't become all bitter and twisted have you? 'I am not bitter,' he said. Then what emotions have you gone through, what have you learnt about yourself in the last six months? 'Look what is this, are you trying to be Anthony Clare?' Yup.
'Well, it has been a testing time, and very good for the soul, but I think I've come through intact, on the whole. I found I'm tougher than I thought, more resilient. I will write about it one day, to give my own view of what happened. I don't see why it should be left to the newspapers.'
Are you bitter about them? You did take a fearful hammering, especially from the Tory press. Your personal life did not help, of course, the little matter of the sex therapist renting your house and the Threshers episode.
'That was untrue, that incident. I can take criticism of my policies, fair enough, but I never realised the press would invent stories. The press did not behave very honestly or very honourably towards me. A lot was said which was simply not true.'
So you've got a book commissioned? 'No, though about a dozen publishers approached me. I'm doing it slowly. It will be about my two-and-a-half years as Chancellor. You expect to be criticised in that position, as does the chairman of the party. I did shield the Prime Minister from a lot of criticism which would have fallen on him.'
Yes, but you personally told us the end of the recession was in sight, that green shoots were appearing. 'My wife tried to talk me out of that phrase, but only because I used it in October, the wrong season for green shoots.'
In that resignation speech in June, you said categorically the recession was over, and that Mr Clarke was lucky to take over from you. 'The recession is over.' Oh yeah.
'Recession is an economic term. When the economy ceases to contract, it is over. It was over in the second quarter of 1992. It always takes time for the public to be aware of it, but it is over. That's why I was so disappointed to give up, just when I was getting on top. I hoped to see it through. I was very sad, but I wouldn't say I was bitter. Politics is like surfing. You are bound to fall off from time to time.'
There have been some silver linings. 'Let's call them tinsel linings.' In the past six months, he has been able to see more of his family. They have two children: Sophie, in her GCSE year at King's, Canterbury, and James, who is having a year in France before going to study at Newcastle University.
He would appear to have put on a few pounds, as well. 'Don't mention my weight, or my wife will go bonkers.' But he does look well, smiling away, repeating again that he is not bitter. His hair, lushly grey, is not as Kenneth-Baker-greased as it used to appear. His dark eyes are mostly amused, not furtive. Mr Lamont is calculating, like all politicians, but somewhere inside, which I didn't expect, there is a certain warmth.
I like the idea of him going on the Tube every day, despite the obvious reactions. 'Wanna job, Norman?' people shouted at him in those first few weeks. Now, he says, most people could not be nicer.
'The other morning, a man on the Tube said, are you Norman Lamont? so I smiled and said yes, thinking something nice was about to be said. 'You are responsible for having made millions unemployed.' I was rather taken aback and uttered something about being also responsible, I suppose, for the millions unemployed in Europe and the rest of the world, but he'd got off the Tube by then. When he'd gone, a woman in the carriage said to me, 'Don't you believe him, I think you were hard done by.' '
Right, let's have your prediction for the Budget. 'It is foolish to predict so near the event, when in a few hours I could be seen to have got it all wrong, but I predict there will be further, but modest, tax increases. Not on individual tax allowances, on the basic rate or the higher rate, as no Conservative Chancellor would do that, but by extending VAT and possibly hitting pension funds. There is a good case for VAT on books and newspapers. Personally, I would be concentrating on cutting expenditure, not on increasing any taxes, but today I'm not the Chancellor.'
The phone rang again. Some confusion, then it emerged as a wrong number. 'No, I am not the Public Record Office '
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