A scapegoat carrying the sins of the Government

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WHEN Margaret Thatcher fell we were promised, you may remember, a comradely, sober and united cabinet. Not flashy, agreed. But businesslike; purposeful; grown-up. And what have we got today? On half a dozen issues - coal, Bosnia, defence cuts, hospitals, police reform and rail privatisation - poisonous briefings and infighting has made the Cabinet look steadily less like the Christian Union and more like the cast of Reservoir Dogs.

Many of these spats are the transitory irritations of demoralised or overworked ministers. They will pass with little harm inflicted on their personal relations. But the battle to replace Norman Lamont is different. From the left of the party, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, is being described as a Chancellor-in-waiting, a man who must rush to complete his reforms of the police by the summer, since a reshuffle awaits. The Home Secretary is not a man crippled by self-doubt, but some Tories accuse him of campaigning a little too bumptiously.

From the right, Thatcherite partisans of Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, are pressing the case for their man to succeed his good friend Mr Lamont. This 'poor Norman' school stops well short of blaming the current Chancellor for anything more than second-rate presentation and being in the wrong place (Downing Street, apparently) at the wrong time. It is a little puzzling that Mr Howard, of all people, is now being touted as a presentational genius. But there we go. His supporters describe him as the driest, least European Chancellor on offer, and much nicer than Mr Clarke.

What is going on? Do we have a politically dying Chancellor, who would have been sacked by now, except that the Prime Minister hasn't quite got round to it? Or are others pushing their luck?

The case for Mr Lamont is unfashionable but real, and deserves to be put. He has achieved some neat political tricks and reforms. The pounds 140 cut in the poll tax by raising value added tax was clever. Some Labour MPs credit his Budget introduction of a 20p lower income tax rate as a key factor in the election victory. His public expenditure control system, the fusion of the Autumn Statement with the Budget, and recent moves towards greater openness in Treasury forecasting are three significant achievements.

The case against him is, of course, more obvious still. The humiliating destruction of his previous policy on Black Wednesday has damaged his credibility with the markets and destroyed it with the serious Tory press. Each cut in interest rates, welcome though it is, merely reminds everyone of the earlier U-turn. His unfortunate personal imbroglios have made him a figure of fun among the Tory tabloids. Despite low inflation and low interest rates, the Chancellor's very presence is a reminder of failure that Mr Major could well do without.

Mr Lamont's trouble is that the case for him is a backward-looking one, and the case against him is about the future. He is, in the words of one Tory minister, 'the necessary scapegoat'. Let us recall what happens to scapegoats, however. Many people seem to think they were the poor brutes killed off to atone for human sins. Not so. In the Biblical ritual of atonement, there were two goats. The Lord's goat got it in the neck - a sacrifice to Jehovah. The scapegoat was luckier. Though it took the people's sins on its scrawny back, it was then deported to the wilderness and allowed to canter cheerfully away.

Eventually Mr Lamont will be released to the wilderness beyond Whitehall. But not yet. Inexplicably, he enjoys hanging around the Tabernacle. If Mr Major intends to heap all the Government's sins on to Mr Lamont's back, he will presumably keep his Chancellor around for long enough to bear the unpopularity that this year's two Budgets are likely to bring. The public finances are in a dreadful state and either further spending cuts or higher taxes must follow. Mr Lamont is so unpopular already that he might as well struggle through the hail of abuse for a little longer. In a couple of years' time the Chancellor may be a popular fellow. But not now.

Why should Mr Lamont want to stay on? Who knows? Maybe he likes the Treasury canteen. More to the point is why Mr Clarke and Mr Howard should be so keen to get the job themselves. The most likely explanation is that both men are being flattered, pushed and used by the pro- and anti-Brussels wings of the Tory party - and that both are doing themselves a lot of harm in the eyes of the Prime Minister, who is getting fed up with cabinet infighting.

Whether or not he reads the riot act when he returns from India, Mr Major cannot now bring harmony to his party. The characters change, but the struggle for the ascendency in European policy goes on. It may appear an empty battle to some, but to the combatants it is about the soul of the Tory party. A new Chancellor would be well placed to campaign for (Clarke) or against (Howard) Britain's return to the exchange rate mechanism before the next election.

While the Maastricht Bill grinds through the Commons, and with the ERM badly shaken, sterling's relationship to the mark has disappeared from public debate. But the latter years of the Thatcher era, and the traumatic events since then have divided the Tories into irreconcilable factions. The struggle continues.