Leading Article: Lamont's attack draws blood

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NORMAN LAMONT's extraordinary speech in Parliament yesterday sharpens an already familiar question: is John Major still fit to hold the office of Prime Minister? Senior Tory backbenchers may try to dismiss what his former Chancellor of the Exchequer has said. But behind the cheerful expressions of continued confidence, more searching questions than ever are likely to be asked about Mr Major's leadership - starting in the meeting of the 1922 Committee today. It is important, however, to be clear why those questions should be asked, and what the accusation is that Mr Major has to answer.

Mr Lamont began with a defence of his own actions as Chancellor, and a detailed account of why he thought his sacking last month unfair. He then continued with a personal attack on the Prime Minister, cloaked elegantly, as British political tradition has it, as advice from a friend. Mr Lamont said that he was not responsible for the decision to enter the exchange rate mechanism; that was the achievement of Baroness Thatcher, Mr Major and Sir Geoffrey Howe. He offered a good case for staying in office after the pound was ejected from the ERM in September: the discredited policy had been a collective one, endorsed by the Cabinet; and the nine other finance ministers across Europe, also forced to eat their words, kept their jobs.

More surprisingly, Mr Lamont revealed that the Prime Minister had told him in writing not to resign, rather than merely over a late-night whisky; and he asserted, to the surprise of many who have spoken to him in private, that he fought for two and a half years to persuade Mr Major to make the Bank of England independent. He added, for good measure, that he himself had suggested suspending the pound's ERM membership in the summer, well before the Government was forced to do so; but Mr Major overruled him.

Yet these insights alone are merely embarrassing to Mr Major, rather than devastating. It is the comments ad hominem that followed immediately afterwards that matter. The picture the former Chancellor painted - 'in office, not in power', 'responding to events rather than shaping them', 'listening too much to pollsters and party managers' - was of a government that puts party advantage before national interest, and a leader willing to sacrifice his colleagues for his own mistakes. The criticism was doubly compelling because it came not from the Opposition (which made no better than a modest showing in yesterday's debate on the economy) but from the man who was until a fortnight ago Mr Major's closest political associate.

It is startling to observe how quickly British governance has veered from one extreme to the other. Less than three years after the removal of Lady Thatcher, a woman cursed by a dogmatic belief that she knew better than any of her advisers or colleagues, the Conservative Party now finds itself led by a man who appears unable to make up his own mind about anything.

By speaking out against his former leader in this way, Mr Lamont has wrought such damage to Mr Major's authority that the Prime Minister can do nothing by himself that will restore his position and that of the Government. The Tory party faces a hard choice: either put Mr Major swiftly out of his agony; or hope, without good reasons for doing so, that events over the coming months help to heal the wound that Mr Lamont has inflicted.