Greasy Pole: Lamont – When Cameron Got It Wrong
David Cameron is in the habit of sprinkling his speeches, like throwing stale currants into a stodgy spotted dick, with unfunny jokes intended to persuade us that a ruthlessly ambitious, manipulative politician can have a harmless sense of humour. Remember the crack in what was called his keynote speech at this year’s Tory Conference, that he respects entrepreneurs and he knows what he is talking about because he goes to bed with one every night and – in time to get the laughter rocking again – wakes up with the same person every morning. The eagerly tamed audience were enthralled as well as amused and Cameron was able to forget that his bedtime entrepreneur – who, for those who have not been paying attention is his wife Samantha – is a very rich one; her father is an Old Etonian stockbroker and 6th Baronet, her parents are divorced and her mother is now Viscountess Astor. Lucky Samantha showed she has the common touch when she said, in reply to a reporter’s question, that she lived “near Scunthorpe”; it would have gone some way to expunge the image of a blackened steel town summoned up by that misinformation if she had mentioned that the family’s home is Normansby Hall, a lush 300 acre estate which they have owned since the late 16th. Century. Clearly, the Cameron family’s bit of what the Tory leader calls “this broken society” is comfortingly intact.
In that same speech Cameron raised some embarrassed titters among the laughs when he shyly admitted to having been an adviser to Norman Lamont when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Labour Party, he said, never let him forget this episode in his climb up the greasy pole. Quite right too – all Tories would like to forget Lamont, the memory of whose time in charge of the Treasury tends to undermine any theories about a Conservative government being inherently more able to tame capitalism’s crises than a Labour one. Lamont was at Cambridge with some rising stars of the Tory governments of the 1980s – Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke, Leon Brittan John Gummer. How many fantasy careers, climaxing in occupancy of Number Ten, were sketched out on the backs of cafe menus in those impatient days? Lamont held a succession of jobs until the Men in Grey Suits did for Thatcher; as Major’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury he acquiesced in, and so had some responsibility for, the policy of Britain being part of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). When Major put himself up in the contest to succeed Thatcher Lamont managed his campaign and he was then rewarded by Major with the Chancellorship.
Lament’s time as Chancellor was not noteworthy for its controlled tranquillity and optimism; indeed his public standing was so abysmally low that years later he recalled a London cabby telling him that one of his passengers, on seeing Lamont crossing the road, offered five hundred pounds to run him down. (He was not to know, of course, that it could be left to Lamont’s political friends to bloodlessly get rid of him later). He was associated with a recession rated in some quarters as the worst since the end of the war and his blithe assurance that it would be “short-lived and relatively shallow” did not inspire any more confidence than his later claim to descry “the green shoots of recovery” all around – although they were not apparent to his struggling colleagues. This fixation with mouthing statements so unwise that they could only haunt him throughout his career was typified by his telling the Commons, in May 1991, that “Rising unemployment and the recession have been the price that have had to pay to get inflation down. That price is well worth paying”. (He did not view his own projection into unemployment, when it came, in quite so positive a light).
The big crisis in Lamont’s time so near to the top of the greasy pole was “Black Wednesday”, that day in September 1992 when he oversaw Britain’s withdrawal from the ERM. This was especially embarrassing for him because only weeks before he had given a categorical assurance that nothing of the kind would happen: “There are going to be no devaluations, no leaving the ERM. We are absolutely committed to the ERM. It is at the centre of our policy” (26 August 1992). Little wonder that Lamont was looking so unkempt when, on 17 September 1992, he emerged into Downing Street to face the voraciously waiting hacks. Amid the panic that day interest rates were dizzyingly raised from 10 per cent to 12 per cent and 15 per cent, then brought back to 12 per cent. The Treasury was not alone in its panic; workers who were buying their homes through a mortgage were desperately worried about how they were to afford the higher payments and whether there were more, similarly chaotic, days to come. They were probably too anxious to notice on their TV screens, as Lamont came through the door of Number 11, that he was followed by a shadowy figure, caught briefly and fuzzily by the cameras. It was his “political adviser” – David Cameron, future Leader of the Opposition, who would one day bellow his scorn at Prime Minister Brown for floundering among the multi-crises of capitalism and who would then be anxious to conceal his association with the ludicrous failure who was once his boss.
Habitual optimists may rejoice that a new age of transparency and candour has dawned with Cameron’s confessed embarrassment at the memory of his time with Lamont. But forgetting a fretful past has been developed to a very fine art by suitably ambitious politicians. There would be, after all, an awful lot of embarrassment for them to misremember. Judge for yourself if this is likely to happen or whether they will continue to see their future as survival through concealment and deceit.