Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's Major Faces New Enemy: A Former Friend ET TU, NORMAN?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's Major Faces New Enemy: A Former Friend ET TU, NORMAN?

Article excerpt

PEOPLE who claim the House of Commons produces some of the world's best political drama have been vindicated by the uproar over John Major's dismissal of the man who masterminded his rise to the premiership two and a half years ago.

Mr. Major's sacking of Norman Lamont on May 27, and the deposed chancellor of the exchequer's savage counterattack on June 9, have jolted an already disheartened Tory government.

Many of Major's supporters say privately that the wounds administered to the prime minister by his former friend were so deep that Major's days as Britain's leader may be numbered.

Back in November-December 1990, in the clamor caused by Margaret Thatcher's removal as prime minister, it was all very different. Major was chancellor, and Mr. Lamont his loyal deputy at the Treasury. When Michael Heseltine, a Conservative backbencher, launched a challenge for the premiership, it was the plump, beetle-browed merchant banker who began championing Major's virtues among parliamentary colleagues who would choose the next leader.

"Norman worked tirelessly for John, who started as an outsider," a senior Conservative backbencher says. "When John defeated Michael it was no surprise that he gave Norman his old job."

The Conservatives' victory in the April 1992 general election appeared to cement the two men's political alliance. Lamont devised a novel plan for reducing income tax for low-wage earners. Major stumped the country, commending his chancellor's tax cuts.

But the seeds of a falling-out were already present. According to William Keegan, a leading economic analyst, a combination of internal and external factors produced a political climate that neither man could master.

The April election had been fought against a background of deepening economic recession. Soon after he was reinstalled at the Treasury, Lamont declared that "the green shoots of recovery" were apparent.

But in subsequent months the chancellor had to explain continuing rises in unemployment and business failures, in the trade gap and the budget deficit. Then, in September, the pound came under tremendous pressure, and Britain was forced to quit the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System.

Then the government that had trounced its Labour Party opponents only six months earlier suddenly began sustaining a series of setbacks unparalleled in Britain's postwar history.

David Mellor, a senior minister, was forced to resign after a sex scandal. A plan to close nearly three dozen coal mines came under attack from government supporters in parliament and had to be shelved. Conservative parliamentarians opposed to the Maastricht Treaty on European unity began harrying the government. A case against businessmen accused of selling arms to Iraq collapsed amid evidence that the government itself was implicated in the sales. …

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