Lamont inflicts 'cutting' wound on Major: Former Chancellor's statement stirs up rumblings of discontent on the back benches

THE DAMAGE inflicted by Norman Lamont on the Prime Minister yesterday could not be compared with the lethal speech made by Sir Geoffrey Howe, many Tory MPs said. 'It was cutting, but it won't kill,' one Major loyalist said.

Sir Geoffrey's speech in 1990 was the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Mr Lamont's words may not have the same impact, but damage was done. Tory MPs said that the 'short-termism' allegation was justified and John Major would have to 'get his act together' or his position would be at risk.

Some loyalists said they were prepared to give the Prime Minister until next year. 'It's like the drip, drip on the stone - but it was a pretty decent drip,' said one anti-Maastricht critic.

There were also rumblings of discontent about Sir Norman Fowler, the chairman of the Conservative Party. 'Some of us are saying he should go,' said one pro-Maastricht MP. 'He's a good organiser, but we want someone out there ringing the bell. He's not doing that.'

Mr Major's speech left some of his keenest supporters looking downcast. It was described by one backbencher as 'appalling - it was the speech of a political clerk, not a prime minister'. Another senior backbench grandee said: 'The Prime Minister may be challenged this autumn, but it would be a great mistake if that happened.' He insisted that Mr Lamont's statement was not by itself enough to bring him down.

He directed his wrath on some members of the Thatcherite 92 Group of MPs, led by anti-Maastricht backbenchers, and factions within the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs. 'The Gang of 92 is trying to run us. We need to get the 1922 Committee lined up to get rid of the factions.'

One of the leading Thatcherites said it had been 'altogether quite a damaging day'.

Mr Lamont was said by those sitting around him to have been pale with tension. 'He had a drink of water by his seat,' said one. 'He was giving off very bad vibes.' Mr Major sat impassively through most of Mr Lamont's speech, staring ahead at John Smith. But when his former Chancellor neared the conclusion, Mr Major betrayed his anger with the twitching of an index-finger on his papers.

Afterwards, the Tory MPs poured into the lobbies looking shell- shocked. Some MPs who had missed it, ran into the chamber. 'Lamont's put the boot in,' one was told by a badge messenger as he raced by.

'It was devastating. A nasty, spiteful speech,' said one angry Tory MP. 'But Lamont fired one cracker - short-termism. We have all been saying that.'

Many Tories said the immediate reaction would be for the Tory backbench to pull together against the attack. They expect a show of unity at today's meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs. 'The difference between Howe and Lamont's speeches was that Lamont had friends,' said one senior member of the 1922 Committee.

Another pointed out that Mr Lamont's seat, Kingston-upon- Thames, will disappear in boundary changes. 'It sounded as if he did not expect to be standing next time.'

But there was a strong echo for Mr Lamont's concluding attack on short- termism. 'It put the finger on what we all now feel about this government,' said a senior backbencher. He warned that criticisms of Margaret Thatcher during her last three years in office had likewise centred on her style of government.

'It was not terminal. It reflects our concern about the need to hear a positive, long-term statement on the Government's aims,' said Jim Lester, a former minister and close friend of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor.

Ministers rallied behind Mr Major. 'Lamont sounded like a man who was just peed off with being sacked,' said one minister of state. 'John's speech wasn't sparkling but that's not his style. He'll never be a rabble- rouser, but he did all right in difficult circumstances.'

Mr Lamont clearly indicated that he felt he was a victim of Mr Major's short-termism. He confided to colleagues after his sacking that he was sorry that the Prime Minister had 'lost his nerve' over retaining him in office.

The reshuffle had been carried through despite a series of entreaties by senior Conservatives to government whips that it should be put off until July. The reaction could delay the Christchurch by-election.

Some believe Mr Major will have to defend his leadership this autumn but there was a growing assumption that he had another year's grace. 'I don't want him to go. I want him to buck up and offer a bit of leadership,' Tony Marlow, the anti-Maastricht MP for Northampton North, said.

There was considerable anger at Mr Lamont. 'It is not the time to split the party,' said the Tory chairman of one select committee. Some Tory MPs said his statement went too far at the end. 'It was like hitting the Prime Minister over the head with a cheap bottle of champagne. The only loser will be Norman,' said Jerry Hayes, the Tory MP for Harlow.

'He said there had been too much short-termism. I think events have dictated that,' said Tristan Garel- Jones, the former minister of state for foreign affairs, who resigned in the reshuffle at his own request.

In contrast to the dismay of Tory MPs, Labour MPs poured into the lobbies grinning with triumph at the success of Mr Smith's speech. 'What a shabby performance by Major,' said a Labour backbencher.

Menzies Campbell, a Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: 'Smith was brilliant. If there was an obvious successor, Major would be on the way out. Lamont's critique was devastating.'

(Photograph omitted)