When old friends become a little embarrassing The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold

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The Independent Online
LET me make one thing crystal clear from the outset. I have been a staunch supporter of Norman Lamont from way back. Nothing will shake me from the loyalty I still feel towards him, no matter how transparently absurd, malicious and pig-headed he has become in the eyes of all right- minded folk.

We in the Tory party do not simply ditch someone when they grow too awkward for our convenience. Good heavens - if that were the case, we might one day find ourselves ditching our very leader just because he or she was doing things not to our taste! No: our sense of trust and loyalty goes far, far deeper than that. As the wise old adage has it, once a man's down, what on earth's the point of kicking him?

Norman and Arnold go back yonks. I first struck up a close friendship with him when he occupied the lofty position of Style Correspondent on the old Punch magazine. It was then edited by the great Bill Davies, good old "Uncle Chuckles" himself. This, I need hardly say, was widely regarded as the Golden Age of Punch, when Yours Truly was Motoring Correspondent, and humorists included Geoffrey Howe on The Lighter Side of the Law, Desmond Wilcox on Steady With That Boom!: A Century of Broadcasting Howlers, Alan Titchmarsh on A Sideways Look at Lawnmowers and, representing the ladies, Miss Arianna Stassinopoulos on If It's Wednesday, It Must Be Athens!!

Strange to relate, his period spent among the rib-ticklers on Punch magazine was to lay one of the key foundations for Norman's subsequent political career. It was in the early 70s, and the young Norman had been despatched by the then features editor (that most mellifluous of mirth-makers, J Enoch Powell), to the celebrated Crufts Dog Show at Olympia, with instructions to report back on What the Well-Dressed Pooch is Wearing. Much to our collective amazement, Norman arrived back in the office looking like nothing on earth, emerging from a two-hour session in a Good Fido Beauty Parlour with the Pekinese Look.

Despite endless supplies of warm-hearted ribbing, Norman stuck with this particular look. As luck would have it, this guaranteed him the selection to fight the Kingston-Upon-Thames by-election in '72. The chairman of the local branch was the keenest of peke-lovers, and when, after a brief discussion on Conservative Incomes Policy, Norman agreed to run on all fours in hot pursuit of a squeezy toy, he was awarded the candidature there and then.

Norman made an immediate impression in the House as a Member with a mind of his own. I remember well the blasting he gave the then Chancellor, Geoffrey Rippon. "Would my Right Honourable Friend accept assurances from this side of the House," he boomed, "that he can rely upon our wholehearted support for his courageous and imaginative policies throughout this most troublesome of times?"

Eventually, such independence of spirit gained its reward. In 1979, Margaret appointed Norman Under-Secretary of State for Energy. An appointment to Government does much for a man. His backbench colleagues began to see Norman in a new light: where once they had viewed him as a chubby little two-bit sycophant with a slimy, ingratiating manner they now agreed that he was an up-and-coming statesman of vision and integrity.

For the next decade, as he rose through the ranks, Norman enjoyed these new-found friendships with his fellow Conservatives. As I have already said, as true Conservatives our loyalty runs deep, particularly towards those destined for High Office. Once ensconced in Number 11, Norman found himself surrounded by trusted colleagues, each of us only too glad to pour the drinks, offer advice and hand around the cheesy bits.

I suppose if one were forced to put a date on the exact moment when Norman's loyal friends began to find their diaries rather too full to fit him in, one would point to the so-called Black Wednesday. I well remember him phoning on the Thursday. "Wallace," he said. "It's Norman here." "I am afraid Wallace Arnold is out at the moment," I replied in my most mechanical of voices. "Please leave a message after the beep, BEEEEP!"

Though his reputation never recovered, I stuck with him through thick and thin, sending him a Christmas card and occasionally even crossing a street so as to wave to him from the other side. But is last week's exhibition really the way to repay the loyalty of the party? From now on, it is my intention to remain his friend, but friend only in the deeper sense of the word, by which I mean,of course, enemy.