It might have been better to go for the boos

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WHAT did John Major think of his Chancellor's speech? Friends and ministerial allies of the Prime Minister last night were saying he was privately just a touch disappointed with Norman Lamont. Not that the Chancellor hadn't been clapped more loudly. No one was worrying about that. More that he had been a touch too sophisticated, a little too deft for these rough times. More political than courageous.

No doubt Mr Major fully understands Mr Lamont's problem. It would have been perilous for him to have confronted the Europhobes, as did Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine. Mr Lamont is less popular and less convinced about Europe than either of them. Mr Major, a sensitive operator himself, knows that, and sympathises. But the fact remains that their attacking speeches have made Mr Major's job easier today. Mr Lamont's speech, for all its care and subtlety, has not.

Some context is essential. The mood of the conference yesterday was as passionately hostile to the ERM as it had been to Maastricht at the start of the week. Speakers in favour of managed exchange rates were booed and told they were at the wrong conference. Those arguing that the ERM, and indeed any close attention to exchange rates, should be abandoned for ever, won tumultuous standing ovations.

With Baroness Thatcher looking on, the popular speakers were fiercely nouveau-Thatcherite in tone - cut public spending, cut interest rates, return to traditional, domestic monetarism. One representative even drew applause when he praised Helmut Schlesinger of the Bundesbank for refusing to help to keep the pound in the ERM: 'He knows a dead horse when he's asked to flog it.'

The atmosphere, in short, was pretty steamy for a government committed to returning at some stage to the ERM. No one would pretend Mr Lamont had an easy job. He said: 'Now the pound is floating again.' There were cheers, which had been pretty sparse up to then. He continued: 'And it is clear that we must not go back into the ERM . . . (cries of 'ever' from the hall) . . . unless and until it is right for Britain.' Unless] What a small, harmless word. And what a huge and fascinating thought. Perhaps Mr Lamont would, after all, do what the conference urged, and refuse to muck about with the ERM? One leader of the anti-Maastricht movement in the Commons was on cloud nine: Norman had seen the light.

Now consider the letter Mr Lamont simultaneously released to John Watts, the Tory MP and chairman of the Commons Treasury select committee, which will interview the Chancellor on Monday. It said: 'The Government has made clear its intention to resume Britain's membership of the ERM.' This would happen only after turbulence in the currency markets had died down; after European finance ministers had indulged in 'reflection and analysis'; and after German interest rates had fallen. Not the most impossible hurdles in the world, you might think. That letter could have been written by the most ardent Cabinet Europhile.

Had Mr Lamont read to the conference what he had written for the committee, he would have been howled down. Had he mentioned Maastricht, or given it to them straight and clear, as he gave it to the MPs, today's headlines would have been all about the Chancellor's imminent demise after being booed and hissed in Brighton. The suspicion must be that Mr Lamont thought the word 'unless', and a few verbal omissions, would save the day.

But by saying the Government would re-enter the ERM, and that it might not, the Chancellor appeared to have been a little less than staunch, and worryingly unclear about his own strategy (as distinct from tactics). He left future policy open. It is, of course. But just at this moment, the Prime Minister needs every heavyweight ally he can get in his confrontation with Thatcherite Europhobes. Whereas other ministers had charged them head on, Mr Lamont had winked at them. Up to now, the two men have been united by joint mistakes and joint reactions. Are they still?

It is possible to over-egg this: much of Mr Lamont's speech was thoughtful, brave and reassuring. He was right to remind the conference that it, too, had been in favour of joining the ERM, and associating both Lady Thatcher and Mr Major with that decision. Perhaps he was trying to build bridges, or bind wounds. If so, he should be aware that those are not the metaphors currently fashionable in Mr Major's entourage. There, so ministers say, bridges are being busily torched. A pretty straightforward, confrontational speech is being burnished and sharpened.

The irony, from the Chancellor's point of view, was that his speech did him little good in the hall, where emotions were so heightened that many signals were missed. His words about the ERM actually angered some anti-Maastrichtians, who had hoped he would come out against the ERM. Lord knows what they would have made of his letter. Talking to representatives after the speech, it appeared they had picked up some hesitancy and equivocation. This year, both convinced Europhobes and convinced Europhiles have won great applause - sometimes, I suspect, from the same perplexed people. Being convinced, and convincing, has been the thing.

Astutely aware of his political positioning, as he has been throughout his career, Mr Lamont sounded sophisticated rather than convinced - still sceptical rather than defiant. As one minister said after the Chancellor sat down, in this crisis the only position that matters to Mr Major is shoulder-to-shoulder.

My guess - and it can only be a guess, since prime ministers are boringly discreet about these things - is that Mr Major had hoped for more than caution yesterday. It may turn out that Mr Lamont would have been wiser to court the boos, rather than avoid them.