Major fails to dispel all doubts on Lamont

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JOHN SMITH accused the Prime Minister of stabbing his Chancellor of the Exchequer in the back in Commons questions yesterday.

With Norman Lamont grinning, smiling and chuckling at his side during the anticipated exchanges, John Major said there were no differences between them, and that they were not going to be 'pushed around' by Opposition mischief- making.

But the Prime Minister's office would give no commitment to Mr Lamont surviving the forecast summer reshuffle of ministers, underlining the view of Cabinet colleagues that Mr Lamont could well lose his job if there were no economic recovery by that time.

Opening the boisterous Commons exchanges, Mr Smith asked Mr Major whether he considered it satisfactory that so many economic commentators appeared to regard the Sunday Times, rather than the Chancellor, as a more credible guide to economic policy.

Mr Major said that although some might seek to portray differences between himself and the Chancellor, 'there are none'.

The Labour leader returned to the fray, again questioning the comparative credibility of the Chancellor and the newspaper. But he added: 'How can people be expected to comprehend the Government's intentions when the Government and No 10 deliberately brief the press to undermine the Chancellor on Saturday and then, on the other days, go into reverse because of the damage done to the economy? Is it not the case that the (Prime Minister) supports his Chancellor in public, while undermining him in private, just as his predecessor did?'

That reference to Margaret Thatcher's strained relationship with the 'unassailable' Nigel Lawson prompted Mr Major to accuse Mr Smith of mischief-making. He said he was wasting his time because neither he nor Mr Lamont were 'going to be pushed around by those sort of remarks'. The Chancellor had cut inflation, reformed taxation, and cut interest rates to 6 per cent. 'That is a record that he can be proud of, that I fully support. It is an essential prerequisite for growth, and the fact that it has been achieved is largely due to the Chancellor.'

Mr Smith said bluster could not disguise the fact that the events of the last weekend had shown again that the Chancellor had no credibility and the Government no economic policy. Against a background of recession and rising unemployment, the public was appalled to see Mr Major and Mr Lamont 'behaving like the two ends of a pantomime horse'.

The Prime Minister's office suggested yesterday that the impact of the Sunday Times report could be measured by the fact that the pound had been at 2.39 German marks before the weekend, and had returned to the same level yesterday.

At the end of yesterday's questions, Mr Major patted Mr Lamont reassuringly on the hand. The body language of support was on full display, but it was said later that Mr Major had no plans to tell the House that the second Budget of the year, in December, would be delivered by Mr Lamont.