Leading Article: Unlucky Lamont?

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NORMAN LAMONT'S salary is pounds 63,000 a year, some four times the national average wage and rather more than any state school head or hospital matron could possibly earn. This level of pay, according to one Tory MP quoted last weekend, 'is a very substantial disincentive to ministerial office'. If so, it seems no disincentive to Mr Lamont, who clings to office as though his life depended on it. Nor does Mr Lamont's style seem affected by penury. His son attends King's School, Canterbury, where fees are about pounds 11,000 a year. He throws parties reported to cost pounds 5,000 a time. When he believes his reputation is being traduced, he turns to Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners.

Mr Carter-Ruck is no ordinary solicitor. Like Mr Lamont, he frequents the Garrick Club. He is the country's most celebrated libel lawyer, charging pounds 240 an hour for what he describes as a 'Rolls-Royce service' on which Mr Lamont does not hesitate to call, as if it were a ministerial limousine. Thus, when the News of the World reported in April last year that Mr Lamont had unwittingly rented his flat to Sara Dale, a 'sex therapist', Mr Carter-Ruck was whistled up within an hour of the first edition coming off the presses. Mr Lamont was not being accused of corruption or pimping or even greed; the newspaper made it clear that Mr Lamont and his wife had never met Ms Dale and knew nothing of her occupation. But he was taking no chances. 'Should anyone publish anything which reflects adversely on me,' he was caused to say by Mr Carter-Ruck, 'I shall have no hesitation in taking such steps as I consider necessary.' The bill to evict Ms Dale and to deter what Mr Lamont described last week as 'over-mighty subjects' was nearly pounds 23,700. Mr Lamont was advised, he could claim pounds 4,300 from the Treasury on the grounds that he would have no use for solicitors were it not for the need to protect the dignity of his office.

How far can this principle extend? Would a headmaster threatened with press stories about an alleged affair with a sixth-former, be able to claim legal costs from his local authority? Last weekend's stories, concerning Mr Lamont's purchases at Thresher Wine Merchants, led to more letters to papers, including this one, from Mr Carter-Ruck.

Mr Lamont should now reflect on three things. First, he should consider how all this looks to the electorate. Here is a man whose actions help to determine the prosperity and employment prospects of millions. Yet he lives in a cocooned world, never using the education, transport and legal services that his fellow citizens have to tolerate. Even when he loses pounds 11bn of our foreign reserves in a vain attempt to prop up the pound, he is not required to seek alternative employment.

Second, he should reflect on the tabloid press. He and his colleagues believe that it has become a monster, from which no credit card account, no purchase of wine, no bedtime intimacy is private, and which now attempts, as Mr Lamont sees it, to determine who governs Britain, rather as the trade unions did in the 1970s. He should reflect on how Tory prime ministers knighted tabloid editors, entertained them in Downing Street, lauded their contribution to election victories.

Third, Mr Lamont should consider why he is the victim of such wretched bad luck. He should take as his text the observation once made by the Irish Times on another subject (the conduct of Charles Haughey, as it happens): the things that happen to people are like the people they happen to. It looks unjust as well as unlucky that details of Mr Lamont's Access account, showing that he had repeatedly exceeded his credit limit, should be leaked. Private financial affairs should remain private. But thousands of citizens may think it unjust and unlucky that they have lost their homes or their jobs. Somebody somewhere presumably thought the congruity between the Chancellor's handling of the nation's finances and his handling of his personal finances was too good to miss sharing with a wider public.