A sober business straight after breakfast

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The Independent Online
FUNDAMENTAL Sacking Theory states that a sacking should never ever take place when either the sacker or the sackee is under the influence of alcohol. Just a wee nip can make all the difference at a time when there is something very unpleasant that has to be said.

As a first-time sacker, you overprepare, you summon all your forces of aggression, you anticipate every defence, you rehearse the sacking over and over until you think you have it pat. You hate yourself. You are a monster. You've never known yourself in this mood before.

This summoning of the adrenalin, and then alcohol on top - it's a recipe for disaster. All the sacker really has to say is 'You're sacked' in one form or another. There's no need to lose your temper, every reason not to. And if you are one of those people who is liable to bouts of self-pity after a couple of drinks, there's an even worse danger - instead of a sacking, you end up with a drunken reconciliation - the very last thing you wanted]

So it was that on Wednesday night last week, the fact that Norman Lamont attended Michael Portillo's birthday party at the Spanish Club - where he might be expected to take at least a glass or two of Rioja - put him out of range of a classic Sacking-Theory sacking, at least till the morning. And that meant that Richard Ryder, the Government Chief Whip, and Mr Major were at liberty, once all their plans were laid, to enjoy a wee nip of Scotch, and no doubt a short wallow of self-pity.

Mr Lamont was tired, but not so tired that he failed to notice, on his return to No 11, Mr Ryder's car outside No 10 and the lights burning late. Of all the details published, this one, that Mr Lamont would recognise the Chief Whip's car, seems to offer most food for the imagination. Not only did he recognise the car, he was concerned enough to phone a friend. This is the kind of incident that will go straight into the film script.

Meanwhile, one supposes, Mr Major and Mr Ryder were sitting motionless, whiskies in hand, waiting for the household at No 11 to settle down. They can guess, in a sense, that the cat is already out of the bag, but that - to Mr Ryder - is no bad thing. It means there is no going back. And Mr Major is relieved, too. Tomorrow he is going to pounce.

He can hardly believe that he has brought himself to this point, but there it is. Perhaps what firmed him up most was not the opinion of Norman Fowler or Douglas Hurd, or the threat from Mr Ryder earlier that evening that, if Norman didn't go, he (Major) would face a leadership challenge in the autumn.

No, the brilliant manoeuvre was the black propaganda to the effect that Mr Lamont thought himself secure because he was blackmailing the Prime Minister; he couldn't be sacked because he knew too much. In the film version, we shall definitely have to establish who thought this up, how it was spread around and, most crucially, who first told the Prime Minister that that was what was being said.

Because it gets at Mr Major's manhood like nothing else. It gets at what the Elizabethans called his 'reputation'. Everyone knows that no man is a hero to his valet, and they would be correct in assuming that Mr Lamont did indeed know something about the PM, having been through so much with him. The only question is: how vulnerable would one be to any revelation? The answer to that is largely a matter of personality.

In the film version, this moment of tension when Mr Lamont comes home and realises that something is up, and Mr Major and Mr Ryder know that they have been observed, is the high point. Silence falls on No 10. The walls are paper-thin, and they can hear the Lamonts preparing for bed and Mr Lamont, as usual, saying his prayers.

Time passes. You can hear the geese honking in St James's Park. A clock strikes. Mr Major jumps when the melting ice suddenly rearranges itself in his forgotten tumbler. Finally, as the regular snores come through the wall, Mr Major whispers: 'What time does he normally finish breakfast?'

'Nine o'clock,' breathes Mr Ryder.

'So I'll see him then.'

'I'd give him 15 minutes, Prime Minister . . . you know . . .'

Mr Major looks puzzled.

'Most people like to . . . you know, have a wash after breakfast.'

And so, at 9.15, Mr Lamont is sacked. The effect, as it must be, is shattering. He is engulfed in a wave of self-pity and he very much fears he will drown. So he does what any man would do - he rings his mother, and for the first time in the film we hear him talking in the ancient, incomprehensible Shetland dialect he imbibed with the old lady's milk.

She tells him (there will be subtitles) of ancient feuds, of orcs and trolls and blood oaths and rings and swords and a great deal about obscure forms of vengeance. Mr Lamont cheers up no end. He will get his own back. He will write such a speech, such a book, such a . . . well, such a press release as to make men quiver in their boots] Not for nothing did his ancestor Filfroth fight with 20 giants on the plains of Inch-na-Screeogh]

An attendant has appeared, bearing a letter from the PM. Mr Lamont's advisers urge that it is good form to say something meaningless in reply. 'Shan't]' says the Lamont of Lamont, stamping his foot, and in that 'Shan't' we hear something ancestral, wild and uncanny. 'Shan't]' he says again.

'Oh, very well,' say the advisers, 'but you should remember that your constituency is being redistributed.'

'Don't care]' says Mr Lamont, sucking his ancestral thumb.

'Leave him be,' says the passing PM, 'he'll settle down in the end.'

And within days this prediction turns out to be true.

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