A bad, bad day for the PM: Andrew Marr assesses the damage an old comrade's farewell has done to his beleaguered leader

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The Independent Online
NORMAN LAMONT was not a peripheral figure in John Major's camp. He was the Prime Minister's old Treasury friend, his enthusiastic promoter as leader, his choice as Chancellor, his colleague through bad times, his comrade in arms. The most devastating message from yesterday is that a man so close to the heart of Mr Major's administration, so intertwined with its very purpose, sees the Prime Minister as weak, purposeless - just no damned good.

Mr Major no doubt thinks Mr Lamont's an equally fine fellow. His friends were writing off the ex-Chancellor last night as a bitter third-rater. The trouble is that most voters agree with both of them. And many will ask why, if Mr Lamont is so bad, Mr Major made him Chancellor and stuck by him for so long. Was it folly? Weakness? Blindness? This was a bad, bad day for the Prime Minister.

At root, Mr Lamont's judgement was so damning because it was so banal. He too, the privileged intimate in Mr Major's circle, asserts the common, saloon-bar view: a nerveless drift before events. Short-termism. Office without power. A government which, unless it changes its very character, does not deserve to survive. Just let that sink in: the man who was Chancellor only a fortnight ago does not think this Government deserves to survive.

The faces of Mr Major's senior ministers were grim enough as they heard the unexpected and unprepared-for attack by Mr Lamont. But there were even more glum faces after the Prime Minister had defended himself. Here, above all, had been the moment for a real leader to have thrown away his notes and plunged into a passionate, determined defence of his stewardship. Mr Major, by contrast, had to have more notes typed up, and delivered the feeblest response possible to his former Chancellor.

Where was his fight? He needed to show his feelings where and when it mattered. The message from Downing Street last night was that there is no question of Mr Major, though he is hurt, throwing in the towel. He will carry on. He puts great faith in Kenneth Clarke, the new Chancellor. Here, it is said by the loyalists, is the fighter. Here is the man who can rally the party, right and left, behind tough spending-cuts. Ken is the coming hero, the man with no Treasury baggage, the political master.

In a sense, talking to some of the Prime Minister's friends, you get the impression that he is almost hiding behind the new Chancellor's prestige. And it is not ridiculous to suppose that the Clarke appointment could mark a turning-point in this administration's fortunes. Yet even if it turns out to be a fresh start for the Government it cannot be a fresh start for the Prime Minister.

Mr Clarke protests cheerfully that he is the Prime Minister's comrade, like Horatius at the bridge, battling side by side. Yes, well, we have relearnt the old lesson this week about the true strength of political comradeship.

Just who is now primus among the pares? Early days, these, but already it seems inconceivable that a fifth Tory election victory would be credited to the current Prime Minister. Whatever job he then holds, it would be more likely to go down as Mr Clarke's victory than Mr Major's.

Had Mr Lamont been more popular on the back benches, this speech would have destroyed Mr Major. It may yet. Mr Lamont firmly aligned himself with the orthodox right-wing critics of Mr Major who represent his most dangerous Conservative foes. A serious attempt to make Mr Major resign this year, or to flush him out with a challenge, cannot be ruled out. Much will depend on the Conservative conference in October.

All the sensible people say Mr Major still has a further 12 months of secure power before he is in serious danger. I do not believe it. These things accelerate. Once they are under way, the parliamentary mob loses patience and quickly bays for the final act. No one knows whether Mr Major will be politically alive when this particular melodrama ends. But it looks bad for him. They are not hanging together, these Tories. Well then, they will hang