Panic in the air as Tories heap scorn on Lamont: MPs rally round in show of support for Major, but by-election may be put off

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NORMAN LAMONT'S shock Commons attack on his former cabinet colleagues generated continuing disarray in the Conservative hierarchy yesterday.

John Major brushed off the barbed statement as a matter of little consequence - but Sir Norman Fowler, the Tory party chairman, raged against his former colleague's 'nasty', 'dud', 'ludicrous', 'silly' and disloyal statement.

Later Sir Marcus Fox, the chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, said after a brief meeting with about 150 MPs that they had 'concluded that John Major is our Prime Minister and will remain our Prime Minister'.

The seeming banality of that statement echoed the damaging vote of confidence in Michael Foot by a Labour manager at the height of the disastrous 1983 election campaign. 'We all insist Michael Foot is leader of the Labour Party,' Jim Mortimer said then.

Sir Marcus told Channel Four News the decision was 'momentous, because it is unheard of . . . for the executive to make a recommendation that we supported 100 per cent John Major as our Prime Minister. Not only that. More than 150 members . . . in the full committee took exactly the same view. There were several speeches and some from those who had not been supportive of the party, all agreed that we were going to rally behind John Major.'

The influential 1922 Committee chairman did not stop there. With Mr Major's ministerial reshuffle a fortnight old, he said there was need for a change of style in party management. 'In terms of presentation, in terms of perhaps a little more firmness and confidence, then we've got to have a change of style,' he said. 'If that means that one or two people have to be changed about or, maybe, different instructions are given, I would welcome that.'

A further hint of deep political panic emerged at Westminster last night with a suggestion that the Christchurch by-election was being ruled out for next month. 'Late summer' was the prediction of one senior party figure - 'don't book your holidays'.

As for No 10's tactical decision to treat Mr Lamont with public disdain, that was best illustrated by Mr Major's unflappable response to John Smith's efforts to add to government embarrassment during Commons question time.

Playing a straight bat, Mr Major said he had no intention of giving Mr Smith a chance to keep the issue going. In a reference to Harold Macmillan's 1958 remark on the resignation of his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Peter Thorneycroft, he said: 'As one of my predecessors might have said, we have 'a little local difficulty'.' That calculated put-down was later underlined by the Prime Minister's office. One official said: 'Yesterday was a one-day game.' Mr Major was playing a five-year game. Mr Lamont's speech was 'fun - not serious'. However, the ministerial effort to dismiss Mr Lamont's destabilisation of the Prime Minister as a triviality was belied by the party chairman's virulent outburst.

In a BBC television interview, Sir Norman was flushed with anger as he said: 'What you found, let's face it, what you found with Mr Lamont has been Mr Lamont making a nasty and in my view dud speech in which he's been thrashing around trying to find a villain for his particular downfall.'

When it was pointed out that Mr Lamont could have had Sir Norman in his sights when he spoke of party managers who were not very good at politics, he appeared apoplectic: 'Hah, well, I think it's a bit rich, frankly, that kind of thing from Mr Lamont. I and many others . . . have spent literally weeks defending the position of Mr Lamont.'

Ousting a leader. . .2

Inside Parliament. . .7

Letters. . .25

Andrew Marr. . . 27

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