Leading Article: One gone, but the ship of fools sails on

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The Independent Online
WE SHALL all miss Norman Lamont. He had become one of the great comic figures of the age. The unpaid Access bills, the alleged purchases at Thresher, the dubious tenant in the West London flat, the songs in the bath - the Chancellor had become so consistent in his capacity to make a fool of himself that, as in a situation comedy, his mere appearance could send the audience into paroxysms of laughter. John Major will miss him most of all. Mr Lamont had indeed become the lightning conductor, the focus for national ridicule and anger. Getting rid of Norman Lamont became, for Tory MPs and constituency activists particularly, a national panacea. Now Mr Major has done the deed and the great entertainer has gone. But we have the same Government and the same policies. And the reality of this Government is not entertaining at all: public spending debts of pounds 50bn a year, a chronic balance of payments deficit, teachers in rebellion, hospitals in turmoil, a railway system being driven towards disaster.

It is hard to think of one significant area of Government policy over the past 12 months that has been handled successfully. Yet last Thursday's reshuffle shows that Mr Major does not regard poor performance - or even rank incompetence - as a disqualification from ministerial office. Why should he? It was he, more than Mr Lamont, who was responsible for the economic policies that prolonged the recession and led to the rout of Black Wednesday. It was Mr Major who, as Chancellor, decided on the timing and manner of our exchange rate mechanism membership. He underestimated the level of interest rates necessary to keep sterling in the system; he failed to consult the Germans and other European Community countries about the right parity for sterling, thus leaving his successor bereft of overseas friends when, two years later, he needed their support to maintain that parity.

Mr Lamont's sacking has nothing to do with his suitability for office. He could and should have left office after the ERM debacle last autumn. An economic policy had collapsed and billions of pounds of public money had been spent on shoring up sterling to no avail. Further, Mr Lamont's repeated assurances that he would never contemplate either devaluation or exit from the ERM saddled the Government with a Chancellor whose future statements lacked credibility and authority. Eight months later, Black Wednesday is half-forgotten while the beginnings of recovery had been allowing Mr Lamont to make a case for himself. The landslide defeats at Newbury and in the shire counties were what did for Mr Lamont, not his failings in office. The subsequent fury in the county associations and the panic on the Westminster back benches forced Mr Major to act.

But, after his clumsy sacking of Mr Lamont, the Prime Minister refused to go further. There is not the remotest sign that he is prepared to apply to the Cabinet the 'performance indicators' that he and his ministers are always demanding for other public sector workers. By any standards, John Patten has bungled the introduction of national testing in schools - the unsuitability of his tests is almost the only issue this century on which the disputatious armies of teachers, educational theorists, right-wing critics and 'professional' parents (the sort who sit on school governing bodies) have been agreed. Yet he stays in office. William Waldegrave has failed to enthuse the nation with the Citizen's Charter, once trailed as Mr Major's Big Idea. Yet he stays in office. Peter Brooke was not considered worth a ministerial post after last year's election and was apparently recalled from the back benches as a stopgap when David Mellor resigned. Yet he stays in office. John Selwyn Gummer was censured by a Commons committee in February for failing to register a pounds 2,600 sponsorship deal with a food company to restore his pond. Further, as Minister of Agriculture, he conducted EC negotiations in which British farmers and fishermen nearly always seem to come off worst. Yet he is promoted. As for Michael Heseltine, who presided over the fiasco of the pit closures, even he seems to have forgotten what he is supposed to be doing at the Department of Trade and Industry. Yet nobody questioned the inevitability of his staying in office.

Mr Major's limited reshuffle is designed mainly to preserve the balance of 'wet' and 'dry' in ministerial ranks, not to improve the Government's performance. He has, it is true, somewhat strengthened the left of the party, by allowing it to control economic policy. (Christopher Huhne examines this shift in his column in our business section today). The overwhelming impression, however, is that the reshuffle would have been more drastic if Mr Major had not been so fearful of disturbing delicate balances.

Politics, in Labour as well as Tory administrations, has always been partly about balances of that sort. But this Government seems to have no other frame of reference. It has no purpose beyond remaining in power, no sense of direction beyond muddling through the next crisis, no vision beyond winning the next election. Its ideas are tired ideas whose useful life is drawing to a close - more privatisation, more attempts to apply market principles. Its targets are old enemies who were routed years ago - trade unions (it beggars belief that Parliament should now be close to enacting the seventh Bill to curb the unions since 1979), 'trendy' teachers, welfare state 'scroungers'. Britain needs new policies and new approaches. Last week's apology for a reshuffle suggests that John Major is not the man to provide them.

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