Ditch Lamont, say ministers

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The Independent Online
NORMAN LAMONT is fighting for his political life amid steadily mounting pressure from Tory ministers and backbenchers for him to be replaced as Chancellor in a summer reshuffle.

A growing number of ministers are convinced that John Major must assert his authority by switching Mr Lamont if he is to avoid his own leadership being called into question after the Newbury by-election and county council election disasters. 'The fuse runs right to Downing Street,' said one minister.

One Cabinet minister said yesterday: 'Norman will have to go - not because any of this is his fault but because it will look as if John is being timid if he doesn't.

'People in local parties are saying that if the Prime Minister doesn't move him he's a wimp.'

Last night, for the first time, talk of a 'stalking-horse' candidate from among the Euro-rebels to stand against Mr Major for the leadership, which has been current for several months, coalesced around the name of Christopher Gill, MP for Ludlow. Mr Gill declined to comment. Under new party rules, Mr Gill, or any other putative challenger, faces an important hurdle: he would need more than 30 Tory MPs to nominate him. One senior Euro-rebel said yesterday that Mr Major was safe until next year.

One minister admitted that a full-scale July reshuffle, involving Cabinet ministers as well as junior ranks, was more likely after the worst election results since the second world war for a government in mid-term. But the Prime Minister was reliably said last night to be digging in against pressure to move his Chancellor this year. 'The trouble is,' said a Cabinet minister, 'the more the press say he should sack Norman, the less he will be inclined to do it. He doesn't want to be pushed around.'

Although pro-Lamont backbenchers rallied round in a public demonstration of support, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph polls today showed clear majorities of backbenchers in favour of Mr Lamont's removal.

Some ministers are even pressing for fresh efforts to woo Lord Owen, the European Community's peace envoy for Bosnia, into the Government. They believe he would help add weight and freshness to Mr Major's Cabinet as Foreign Secretary when Douglas Hurd decides to step down - almost certainly not before next year at the earliest.

Mr Major is said to be particularly angry with Euro-rebels for highlighting Tory divisions in the approach to Thursday's elections. And there are clear differences among his senior colleagues about whether a full-scale Cabinet reshuffle this year is advisable.

Mr Lamont - who last night celebrated his 51st birthday with a dinner for friends at his grace and favour residence in Dorneywood - will take his fight to the Scottish Tory Party conference on Wednesday. He will defend his record strongly, acknowledging that he has had to take unpopular decisions but promising that Britain is now passing out of its economic storms.

A reshuffle is anyway not expected until July at the earliest. The Chancellor is hoping that the clamour for his replacement will have abated by then. One senior Cabinet minister said that a full- scale reshuffle would be seen as a sign of weakness while another said: 'It would not make a difference. The fact is the recovery is happening but people cannot feel it yet. You cannot feed on statistics. We have a world problem and you cannot escape this fact. I still think we will win the general election with a majority of 60.'

But several ministers called for a re-examination of government policy. They also believe that the Government should make more concerted efforts to ensure that legislation is workable before it embarks on new initiatives. Education, rail privatisation and law and order are areas that were raised on the doorstep in the council elections.

David Nicholson, Tory MP for Taunton, said that, besides the economy, the issue which had caused most concern was the row between teachers and John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, over plans for school tests. He added: 'John Patten must extricate himself from this issue before it does him terminal damage.' Mr Nicholson's constituency is in the heart of a region where the Tories did especially badly, losing control of Somerset, Devon and Dorset councils.

The Sun, one of the Conservatives' most ardent supporters, said in an editorial yesterday: '(Mr Major's) first and most urgent task is to sack Norman Lamont today. Even if it is his birthday.'

The Chancellor - whose standing will be discussed at a regular meeting between Mr Major and party and government managers tomorrow - won backing from Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'One thing you have to remember is the basic rule of politics that no good chancellor is popular. A chancellor who is popular may not be doing what the country needs.' Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary, is also expected to back Mr Lamont in an interview on television today.

John Watts, chairman of the all-party Commons Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, said: 'Making Norman Lamont the scapegoat of the election results would be quite wrong.'

Revival of the Owen proposal - though common gossip in some ministerial circles - is dismissed as fanciful by others. A serious obstacle is the former SDP's leader often-stated refusal to join the Conservative party.

John Smith, the Labour leader, took advantage of Mr Major's discomfort, calling on him to scrap plans to impose VAT on fuel and heating bills. He told Labour's National Policy Forum in London: 'If he is really listening, Mr Major should now announce that he will withdraw these unjust VAT increases.'