Tory MPs opt for Lamont to stay on

NORMAN LAMONT's battle to stay at the Treasury has received limited backing from Conservative MPs in a poll which illustrates the obstacles in the way of a New Year Cabinet reshuffle.

Nearly two-thirds of Tory backbenchers oppose the idea of a reshuffle in January and almost as many believe that, if Mr Major does opt to alter his Cabinet, Mr Lamont should stay in his post.

A survey conducted for BBC Television's Behind the Headlines programme, to be broadcast tomorrow, shows that Mr Lamont enjoys fair support among Euro-sceptics who are disproportionately represented among Conservative backbenchers. It also exposes divisions over who should replace him if a reshuffle does take place.

Mr Lamont last week raised the stakes over an early reshuffle by telling the Wall Street Journal that 'absolutely no' other government job interested him, thus appearing to rule out a move to either the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence.

The poll, conducted by NOP on Friday and yesterday, questioned 72 MPs, roughly one-third of the parliamentary party. When asked who should be the next Chancellor, they gave right-wing candidates prominent backing. Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment and a Euro-sceptic, was supported by eight MPs. Such an appointment would enrage European enthusiasts.

Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, won the support of five backbenchers. John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, was backed by eight MPs and the more Europhile Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke - whose appointment would infuriate the Euro-sceptics - was backed by five. Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, was supported by two.

Although 25 Tory MPs questioned want a new Chancellor, Mr Lamont appears - for the time being - to have ridden out the recent controversy over 'Threshergate' and the payment from the public purse of pounds 4,700 on legal fees in connection with the eviction of a 'sex therapist' who had rented his London home.

Some colleagues have questioned his wisdom in threatening legal action against a number of newspapers, including influential Conservative-supporting tabloids. With the recovery of the pound fuelling speculation of another cut in interest rates, some Conservative sources have been arguing that signs of recovery in the economy are evident. A more formal judgement will be offered on Thursday when the Treasury's first monthly economic assessment is published.

Labour believes that Mr Lamont's survival gives them valuable ammunition with which to attack Mr Major's 'government of chums'. John Smith, the Labour leader, plans to make a speech soon which will attack the 'elected dictatorship' of Tory government.

Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, yesterday warned of 300,000 job losses in the coming months. Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, speaking in Derby, said that Mr Major was the 'most unpopular Prime Minister in history'. She added: 'Since the war there has been only one Prime Minister whose record shows an average of no growth - an average annual rate indeed of -1.7 per cent. His name is John Major.'