Interview: Lord Tebbit - Labour's lethal weapon?: He might be a lord but politically he is the same as ever, biting hard at John Major's pro-European heel, writes Stephen Castle

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THE Chingford skinhead is back. Neither ennoblement nor age has diminished his talent for verbal violence. Last week, he tore into legislation proposed by a Conservative Prime Minister and confirmed that his object was to get through Parliament an amendment put down by Labour.

Lord Tebbit began his offensive against the Maastricht Bill on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost last Sunday. He called for Britain to 'cut the throat of the nasty horrible thing'; a Franco-German currency alliance would be a 'frog mark'. On Wednesday, addressing parliamentary journalists, he damned the treaty as 'that foul abomination, that running sore of Britain's politics, John Major's political tar baby, John Smith's self-imposed ball and chain, the crumbling altar of the xenophobic paranoic world of Monsieur Delors'.

The Labour amendment - which Lord Tebbit urged Tory rebels to back - was intended to reinstate into the main treaty the Social Chapter, from which Mr Major negotiated an opt-out. The chapter would give Brussels influence over such matters as social security, the right to fire employees and workers' rights of consultation. It thus embodies everything a good Thatcherite abhors.

How can Lord Tebbit, one-time union-busting Secretary of State for Employment and scourge of the TUC, advocate support for such a thing? And how can he risk plunging the Government into disarray and possibly even bringing down Mr Major? ONE OF the surprises of Westminster is how political villains occasionally turn out to be rather pleasant people to meet. Of no one is this more true than the man variously called Dracula, a semi-house-trained polecat and the Prince of Darkness. He is a courteous and relaxed character, and the least pompous of politicians. After Margaret Thatcher's unsuccessful leadership campaign, Norman Tebbit (as he then was) suggested a dream candidate: his brain in Michael Heseltine's body.

Since he became a peer last summer, he is seen less often in Parliament. He expects to make his maiden speech in the Lords this week, followed by a contribution to the peers' Maastricht debate on Wednesday. He devotes most of his day to his business interests and his directorships of British Telecom, BET and Sears.

In the half-light of the Lords press room where we met, Lord Tebbit tempers his rhetoric, but the conviction is strong. Is he supporting the Social Chapter? Not at all, Lord Tebbit asserts. Labour argues that a consequence of passing amendment 27, the one in question, would be the removal of Britain's opt-out from the Social Chapter. Lord Tebbit argues that it would simply remove the Social Chapter entirely. (Lawyers are already wrangling over the effect of the amendment as the vote approaches.) 'The amendment will lessen the possibility of the Social Chapter being imposed on us and it will destroy the treaty.' So convinced of this is Lord Tebbit that, if the Labour amendment fails in the Commons, he will put it down in the Lords.

What about the danger of precipitating Mr Major's downfall? Defeat for the Prime Minister on the Bill would not be nearly as damaging for the Government as a victory, Lord Tebbit says. 'The exchange rate mechanism was the centrepiece of government economic policy. Without it, we faced vast inflation, huge interest rate rises. Coming out was reckless, bizarre - I forget how many adjectives were used to describe those advocating leaving the ERM. We left. The Government's policy turned on its head. The Prime Minister and Chancellor continue in office. The Government's position is rather better now.'

Doesn't he, a former party chairman, feel any twinge of disloyalty urging opposition to the Government? 'Most of those who, in recent days, have accused me of disloyalty are among those who led the overthrow of the former Prime Minister.'

According to one friend Lord Tebbit has returned to his role as arch- irritator of the Establishment. His strength, it is argued, is his ability to appeal over the heads of other politicians direct to the people. 'Ordinary people relate to Norman. He is either the bloke next door, if you like him, or, if you don't, the neighbour you wish would move.' To Mr Major, neighbour Norman must sometimes sound as if he wants to burn the whole street down.

NORMAN TEBBIT'S rise from humble Ponders End through the RAF and BOAC to Parliament and the Cabinet was a potent symbol of the Thatcher years. Appropriately for a son of a pawnbroker who now finds himself in the Lords, his successful memoirs were entitled Upwardly Mobile.

The Brighton bomb, which left his wife Margaret partially paralysed, has cast a long shadow over the Tebbit career. Norman's injuries, although nowhere near as horrific as hers, still cause him difficulty and last year he needed more surgery. Although he plays it down ('I'm in my sixties and I'm not sure how easy it is to distinguish between the effects of Brighton and the effects of old age') friends say he is often in pain.

As Employment Secretary and party chairman he was one of Mrs Thatcher's soulmates. Somewhere in the second Thatcher Parliament relations cooled. Perhaps Lady Thatcher had suspected an ambition to succeed her, something to which Lord Tebbit admitted only recently on Desert Island Discs. He had decided to leave Cabinet before the 'wobbly Thursday' of the 1987 election campaign when, as he saw it, his party chairmanship was undermined by Mrs Thatcher's decision to call in a new advertising team. Relations were repaired only when Mrs Thatcher was challenged for the leadership and he provided the backbone of her otherwise feeble campaign team.

To hear him now, you would think he had never cared for her successor. At last week's press lunch, for example, he described Mr Major as 'oversold in advance'. Yet the press cuttings reveal that he was the first senior politician to champion Mr Major's cause. In October 1987 he identified the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury as a potential future leader. Major, he argued, was 'coming to the fore' as the 'ordinary bloke' at the top of the party.

Five years on the two have not met for some time and Lord Tebbit confesses that the Prime Minister would not be 'unduly keen to cross the road to meet me'. Could he give the Major administration marks out of 10?

'If we could get public expenditure under control and Maastricht sorted out I think he would get a very good score. Until then, I would rather not mark his examination paper. It is a mixed picture. The Government's courage over privatisation is certainly not to be called into question. In taking on railways and coal they are going further than we were able to go.

The problem is we did not have a contingency plan for an alternative economic policy were we to be out of the ERM and I think therefore that policy has not been clear since 'Bright Wednesday' '.

Later he adds: 'John's error is in thinking that Margaret Thatcher's European policy was unpopular in the country or the Conservative Party - quite the reverse. At the last Euro elections the Conservative Party suffered a massive setback that was quite widely interpreted as being a rebuff to Mrs Thatcher's European policies. It was a grotesque misreading.'

Although some wanted him to stand for the leadership in 1990 he backed Mr Major and says he would do the same again. 'I make it plain that if there were to be a contest, that would be my view still.' But what should happen if Mr Major were to step under the proverbial bus? In those circumstances 'there might be a mood to look to someone older, safer, with rather less ideological baggage, someone more secure and more comforting and I am sure Douglas Hurd's friends would say that he was just the sort of reassurance which the party needed if it was going through a period of great turbulence'.

The rot in the Major-Tebbit relationship set in last September when, during a Commons emergency debate, the Prime Minister joked: 'I admire Lord Tebbit as a man, a fighter - a bruiser. He likes to bite your ankles even if you aren't walking up his pathway.' Shortly afterwards, during the Brighton party conference, Lord Tebbit called for the end of Maastricht, arguing that it would be 'reckless, perverse and bizarre for Europe's politicians to override the will of Europe's peoples to manage their own affairs'. According to Lord Tebbit, Mr Major's comments had not caused offence. According to a friend, Lord Tebbit observed, before making his speech, that he hadn't started the fight but, since it had begun, why not show them both barrels and see how they like it?

Brighton marked the point at which Lord Tebbit became an unofficial opposition leader, isolated from the party hierarchy. Inevitably this has reduced his influence in the Commons. Last week's press gallery speech was so strongly worded that it was disowned by some Euro-sceptics. Lord Tebbit responds: 'I was able to raise the flag at the party conference and continue to fly it since; there is an audience outside Parliament. It was perhaps an exercise in news management. One of my former colleagues observed on Wednesday that he thought it was a bit of a cheek - and he said it in the nicest way - to secure the front page of the Times for a speech which hadn't been made when some ministers found it difficult to secure the front page or even the third page for speeches which they had made.'

His motives for last week's outburst perplex some colleagues and one Cabinet minister concluded last week that Lord Tebbit simply 'misses the adrenalin and flashing lights' of politics. Lord Tebbit's explanation is predictably blunt: 'I'd much rather not have any part in it at all. It's only bloody Maastricht that's dragged me back.'

(Photograph omitted)