By 1999, Tony Blair’s Labour Party had been in power for two years, with Gordon Brown as chancellor. Blair and Brown’s relationship was notoriously difficult for the duration of their time in office. In this piece from around the middle of New Labour’s first term, Julia Langdon considers another recent pairing of previous prime minister and chancellor: John Major and Norman Lamont. She recalls a conversation she had with Lamont nine years previously, in which she’d clocked his bitterness to Major, three years before his resignation from Major’s government in 1993. As she contemplates their differences and the eventual disintegration of their relationship, she wonders: could Blair and Brown learn from this?
It was in a restaurant in Christchurch, near Bournemouth, exactly nine years ago, that Norman Lamont unwittingly disclosed his personal bitterness about the ambitions of his boss, the then chancellor John Major.
Lamont, then chief secretary to the Treasury, was meant to be tucked up in his room at the Tory conference in Bournemouth, conducting bilaterals with the spending ministers. Instead, while the newspapers were busy describing the misery of his incarceration with room service and recalcitrants, he had typically slipped out for a discreet dinner. It was agreeably spent, mostly discussing the parlous state of the Tory leadership, but my abiding memory is of the tone in Lamont’s voice when I registered surprise at his account of Major’s political positioning with a view to succeeding Margaret Thatcher.
“I didn’t know he was that ambitious,” I said.
“Didn’t you?” said Lamont, his voice heavy with import. “Well, he is.”
And within a matter of weeks, John Major was prime minister. It was something of a surprise to everyone, including – as he makes clear in his own newly published record of events – to some degree Norman Lamont himself, that he emerged as the campaign manager for John Major in that leadership election. They were not friends; even then they didn’t much like each other. They are very different characters. They did not share an ideology, beyond a commitment to the Conservative Party. They had already disagreed quite fundamentally about economic policy during their year together at the Treasury.
It was, in fact, John Major’s team who “begged” him to become campaign manager, reveals Lamont, a request that was determined by a situation in which nobody was taking decisions or directing affair. This version of what happened has also been confirmed recently by Norman Fowler, the Tory chairman at the time. He wrote that he had refused a request from Lamont, at midnight on the night before Thatcher’s resignation, that he should be the Major campaign manager in the event of the prime minister’s anticipated resignation.
So, as Lamont says, it was an accident. It was, really, the reverse of serendipity: an unhappy chance. The next few years were to prove just quite how unhappy.
[See also: From the NS archive: The “fact” of partition]
Both men are extraordinarily bitter and clearly determined to settle their scores. Over the next few weeks, they will exercise what remains of their claim on the public prints as the memoirs roll out.
Yet the difference in their political backgrounds alone should have been enough to set nervous antennae jangling at the very thought of these two trying to do business together. They are both career politicians, having arrived at the House of Commons after a brief flirtation with banking, but at that point any possible search for similarity ends. Their backgrounds are different: one the son of a Scottish surgeon; the other the son of a circus artiste with that embarrassing garden gnome connection. One went to Cambridge University and got a degree and a lot of connections, while the other was busy getting a chip on his shoulder. Lamont is a man who attracts French adjectives: suave, a little louche, somewhat outré perhaps. Major does not attract French adjectives.
Yet who was the better politician and who the more successful? Lamont got into the House of Commons by a fairly traditional establishment route in a by-election in 1972. Seven years later, by the time John Major was elected at the general election of 1979, Lamont had already got his legs well under the table at Westminster. He had been a parliamentary private secretary. He’d done the party jobs that needed to be done. He was in Margaret Thatcher’s first government as a junior minister at the Department of Energy. John Major was still trying to find his coat-peg and his way around the building.
Where they came from, politically, was also different. Lamont flirted with the Bow Group when it was still a vaguely “left-wing” organisation within the Tory hierarchy, but he was always on the right of the party. Major was a man who came to Westminster with a lot of personal socio-political baggage to do with his background and family. He was always really a lefty in Tory party terms: “He was a left-wing Conservative; his heart was with the Blue Chips,” Lamont said of Major at the time, referring to the group of well connected Tories, elected in 1979, typified by the Chris and John Pattens and Tristan Garel-Jones.
So the irony was that it was the boy from Brixton, who came from behind – politically, socially and seven years after Lamont as well – it was he who proved to be so very much more astute and who got to be prime minister. Somewhere Lamont makes a somewhat sarcastic reference to having been out of the inside loop of Major’s leadership and never having been invited for curries in Brixton – or, he says, wherever it was. In that aside alone, he sums up much of the distance between them.
History does not (yet) relate their first personal encounters, but politically they must have had dealings as soon as Major began his rapid ascent of the ministerial ladder. Elected in 1979, he became a PPS two years later and then a government whip for two years. He was the sort of man who always carried a list of all Tory MPs’ home telephone numbers; this is rather like the political equivalent of being a member of the AA, because you never know if you aren’t going to have a puncture. But it was also a mark of his very shrewd fixing abilities. Next he was under-secretary at Social Security, then minister of state, then chief secretary to the Treasury – and it was there that he found Lamont already installed as financial secretary. It is at this point that their lives and political careers become inextricably linked. After this, they scaled the ladder together, but with Major always on the rung ahead.
They disagreed about the economy from the start. Major, when he was chancellor of the exchequer himself, always felt less easy with Lamont of all his junior ministers. He did not go along with many of his judgements on public expenditure when Lamont was chief secretary. Lamont, for his part, thought that Major was excessively optimistic and he told Major’s biographer Anthony Seldon – or at least gave him the impression – that he felt that he, Lamont, was not trusted. He must have been right not least because there is an explicit reference to David Mellor, a close friend of Major’s, having been appointed chief secretary precisely to keep an eye on Lamont as chancellor.
There was a theory, probably not misplaced, that Lamont played the efficient part he did in Major’s election as Tory leader in exchange for a specific promise of the chancellorship. Both Kenneth Clarke and Chris Patten were in the frame for the job at the time, and when it went to Lamont it was seen as the pay-off from a deal between the new leader and his campaign manager. This theory is supported by the diaries of Judith Chaplin – Major’s former aide – to which, incidentally, it appears that Anthony Seldon had access when he was writing Major’s biography.
[See also: From the NS archive: Hanging’s too good for them]
As soon as Major was installed at No 10 with Lamont next door, the disagreements went from bad to worse. At some stages, it seems as if they scarcely spoke, certainly not unless they had to at formal meetings. The chancellor kept putting his foot in it, one way or another: “green shoots of economic spring” when the recession was bumping Britain along the bottom; singing in his bath after the exchange rate mechanism debacle; never regretting rien; worst of all, observing that unemployment was a price worth paying. All of this and trouble on the domestic front with credit cards and Madame Whiplash in the basement – and then Black Wednesday, too.
It was not Lamont’s policy, and now he will have us understand it was not his fault, either. The indecisiveness of the prime minister (whose policy it was to join the ERM in the first place) was part of the problem. These matters do not need detain us here, or not at least as regards the specifics. What does matter is the nature of the relationship between prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer. This may be almost impossible in politics, but it has to be one of mutual trust. They don’t have to like each other personally, or come from the same background, or share the same visions of the future organisation of society, but what we learn from this episode of recent political life and times is that neither minister will be able to conduct himself or herself efficiently in office without getting on with the other.
This is something that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown may care to contemplate.
Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)