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Surprise speech after surprise sacking

THE PRIME Minister's office was as surprised by Norman Lamont's decision to make his resignation statement yesterday as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer had been by John Major's decision to sack him.

Mr Lamont did not even tell No 10 that he planned to make a statement - never mind offer the courtesy of a text.

Downing Street was put on notice at noon that Mr Lamont was planning to make his devastating intervention, after he had asked the Speaker's office for permission to make the traditional resignation statement. The Speaker gave her blessing, the Leader of the House was informed and his office told No 10.

When Mr Lamont started recounting to the House that he had unsuccessfully urged Mr Major to create an independent Bank of England, the Prime Minister and Kenneth Clarke, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, started talking out of the corners of mouths.

After Mr Lamont had finished, and as John Smith started speaking, the whispered conversation continued. Mr Clarke then began talking to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. Mr Howard stretched forward and got some paper and a blotting pad for Mr Clarke, who drafted two pages of notes, handing them to Mr Howard, who made amendments. That draft was passed back to Phillip Oppenheim, the Chancellor's parliamentary private secretary, who was sent to get it typed. When the typed text came back, Mr Clarke and Mr Howard read it, and it was passed to Mr Major, who made a few adjustments. That was the ad hoc wording he read when he replied to Mr Lamont's call for the independent central bank.

He said that while he had agreed with the case for independence of control of monetary policy, there was also 'very real concern about the need for accountability to Parliament for decisions upon monetary policy matters'.