A lunch too far for the PM: Norman Lamont's reported comments, despite denials, have once again undermined the credibility of No 10

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The Independent Online
FOR Chris Meyer, the new press secretary at Downing Street who took over last Thursday, it will not be a weekend to remember. It was supposed to be the Prime Minister's relaunch, his keynote comeback speech spelling out the 'back to basics' message and laying to rest internal tension. Unfortunately for Downing Street it was the ex- Chancellor, Norman Lamont, who stole the headlines.

Did he use a Times Magazine article to describe Mr Major as 'weak and hopeless', his moral crusade as 'nauseating' and claim that, while in office, Lamont speeches had been censored by Downing Street to remove references to Lady Thatcher?

Once again attention focused on disputed comments made by a politician to a journalist. In the past the Prime Minister has been at the centre of these rows dubbed variously as 'bastardgate', 'barmygate' and 'dinnergate'. This time it was Mr Lamont, still bruised by his dismissal eight months ago. But the result for Mr Major was the same: another debilitating row over his leadership.

The timing was pure chance. The editor of the magazine, Nicholas Wapshott, wrote to Mr Lamont in October requesting an interview and was sent a rather cool response. Then the ex-Chancellor's secretary rang back to arrange a lunch with Mr Wapshott. That took place at the Ivy in November and Mr Lamont gave the go-ahead. The interview finally took place on 6 January in the Commons.

It appeared to have yielded very little that was controversial. In the 'formality' of the meeting, wrote the author, Ginny Dougary, in yesterday's Times, 'confronted by a tape recorder and a notebook, Lamont had been more circumspect in his comments'. But the interview was less than half of a total of around six hours of meeting. The two then went off to lunch at San Lorenzo, the restaurant made famous by the Princess of Wales.

It was from the lunch, described as 'shortish', that most of the disputed comments emerged. The ex-Chancellor has since denounced the report as 'a mixture of invented quotations and muddled misrepresentation of things said off the record', although he declined to disown specific phrases. Friends point out that the offending phrases were all reported out of context as phrases or short sentences rather than extensive chunks of text.

Ms Dougary did not have a notebook in front of her during lunch. Mr Lamont left the restaurant first and she then wrote down the most oustanding words in her notebook.

But her defenders are adamant that she followed proper journalistic etiquette, arguing that comments which Mr Lamont deemed to be off the record did not appear in her article.

Magazine journalists tend to use material gleaned from a lunch with an interviewee and this should be understood. One defender added: 'It was a politician talking to someone whom he had never met before. She is not a member of the lobby. He cannot argue that this took place under agreed rules of some sort of club. And you don't confide this type of material to someone with whom you have no relationship unless you expect it to be reported.'

After the lunch Mr Lamont and Ms Dougary remained on cordial terms. They met a couple of days later for drinks in the Ritz and Mr Lamont specified that various comments - apparently not including the disputed ones - should been off the record. The ex-Chancellor telephoned to read her a quotation from Dryden which he had referred to earlier. It was only when he saw trailers for the interview that Mr Lamont's tone changed, as he called the paper's editor and demanded a copy.

The row may be partly explained by the fact that both interviewer and interviewee had entered unchartered territory. Ms Dougary, who is in her mid- thirties and has contributed as a freelance to several papers and magazines, is the Times Magazine's star interviewer.

This was hardly her first such interview but she does not specialise in profiles of politicians, who spend their lives operating by varying standards of what they will say, depending on whether they are speaking 'off the record' or 'for background' - meaning that their thoughts can be used but their words not directly attributed. For his part Mr Lamont is more used to being interviewed about policy, and does fewer interviewers with journalists like Ms Dougary whose expertise is in extracting profile-type information from the famous.

Maybe Mr Lamont had a suspicion that he had been lulled into confiding things against his better judgement. Ostensibly the ex-Chancellor had, in recent weeks, been rather supportive of the Government. On Thursday he joined a clutch of Cabinet ministers including Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at a champagne party at Brook's's club near Piccadilly.

But according to one guest, Mr Lamont looked somewhat subdued. Two days earlier he had made a helpful intervention in the Commons at Question Time. However, Terry Dicks, MP for Hayes and Harlington, revealed yesterday that after the ex-Chancellor's comments he had leaned over and said to him, 'Well done Norman, I'm glad you are onside again.' Mr Dicks added: 'He said to me, 'Don't be too sure too soon.' '

Although not regarded as a potential successor to Mr Major, his intervention was a reminder that he may retain the capacity to provoke a leadership crisis, perhaps with choice revelations about Mr Major's behaviour over Black Wednesday.' Moreover, Mr Lamont is seeking a new constituency because the Boundary Commission is due to abolish his seat. Another demonstration of embitterment is unlikely to endear him to selection committees.

Meanwhile, battered by a string of reports about leaks of Mr Major's conversations, and by revelations about Tim Yeo's affair and his subsequent entertainment of his mistress at Langan's, backbench MPs have developed a sense of humour about such incidents. 'Quite clearly', said one 'there has been an over-lunch conversation. I think the big lesson to learn is that if you are taking out your mistress, go to the San Lorenzo. If you want a private conversation, go to Langan's Brasserie.'

(Photograph omitted)