The Cabinet Reshuffle: Embarrassment that dogged Lamont's career: Colin Brown recalls the locked door, the black eye, the wine receipt and the sex therapist

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The Independent Online
NORMAN LAMONT emerged from one recent high-powered meeting at No 10 Downing Street and in full view of the television cameras walked next door to No 11. Unfortunately, he found the door shut, and no one ready to let him in.

'They've thrown away the key,' shouted a cameraman, as the Chancellor scuttled back inside No 10. It was the kind of embarrassing position which Mr Lamont seemed unable to avoid.

In his last interview as Chancellor, he told the Guardian on the eve of his departure: 'I am sure I seem responsible for the sinking of the Titanic.'

The metaphor of the sinking ship of state may come to haunt John Major like some of Mr Lamont's other memorable phrases, such as 'the green shoots of recovery' and his description of unemployment as 'a price well worth paying' to secure low inflation.

It was the iceberg of 'Black Wednesday' that destroyed his credibility, and sank his hopes of hanging on. Despite official dismay at Britain's ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, Mr Lamont said later he was singing in the bath 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning'. So much for the estimated pounds 5bn down the drain . . .

He wanted to be remembered as a reforming Chancellor, but was never able to throw off a reputation as a lightweight in a heavyweight office. After the ERM debacle the gaffes came floating to the surface, like wreckage.

'Norman was known by Gum Gum (John Gummer) as Wonk, after that koala bear figure. He was a bit of a tearaway,' Norman Stone, professor of modern history, recalled from their university days together at Cambridge.

Mr Lamont's fun-loving reputation as an undergraduate continued when at 30, he entered Parliament and rose through the ministerial ranks. In 1985, when he was a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, he arrived at the Commons with a flesh-coloured eye patch vainly concealing a black eye. The Sunday tabloids had a field day describing how it was acquired in a misunderstanding with a London art dealer late one night at the Bayswater home of Lady Olga Polizzi, widow of an Italian aristocrat and eldest of Lord Forte's daughters.

In the Thatcher-Heseltine leadership contest, Mr Lamont supported the former Prime Minister. But when she failed to win, he quickly organised the campaign that secured the leadership for John Major. Mr Lamont, who had been Mr Major's second in command at the Treasury, was rewarded by being made Chancellor.

When Mr Lamont and his wife, Rosemary, moved into No 11, they let their house in Notting Hill through an agency to a tenant, who, the Sunday tabloids discovered, earned pounds 90 an hour as a 'kinky sex therapist' under the professional title of 'Miss Whiplash'.

The Lamonts had no knowledge of her form of employment, but it further tarnished the Chancellor.

Mr Lamont hired one of the most eminent but expensive libel lawyers to deal with the reports and became embroiled in further trouble, when it emerged that the Treasury paid part of the bill. The Commons Public Accounts Committee took a dim view.

With Fleet Street in full pursuit, the Sun disclosed the Chancellor - struggling with the pounds 50bn public sector borrowing requirement - had exceeded the pounds 2,000 borrowing limit on his Access card by pounds 470. He was then alleged to have bought a bottle of champagne and a packet of Raffles cigarettes in a Paddington off-licence. As the sniggering at Westminster continued, he was humiliated into producing a receipt to prove he had not been there.

He had bought three bottles of red wine in another Thresher off-licence, and angrily complained that it was 'the height of absurdity' for him to be brought out of an important meeting in Brussels to explain where he bought his wine.

His own 'annus horribilis' was almost completed when he was told his seat in Kingston-upon-Thames was going to disappear in the boundary changes. During the Newbury by- election, he declared 'Je ne regrette rien'. He may take a different view now.