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Monday, 16 September, 2002, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
The day that shook the Tories
Former Tory Prime Minister John Major
Major denied dithering over ERM

Many nails were driven into the Tory government's coffin in the dying months of John Major's premiership.

There was sleaze - a term seldom used in politics before Labour latched onto it in the wake of the antics of Tory MPs like Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton.

There was Europe - an issue that was threatening to split the party in two and which had already helped do for Margaret Thatcher.

Former Tory Chancellor Lord Norman Lamont
Lamont: Not my fault
There was, frankly, uselessness - the feeling that the party had run out of steam and ideas, and that John Major could do nothing right.

And there was the arrival in 1994 of Tony Blair - the charismatic and "New" leader the Labour party had been praying for and, in some quarters dreading, for a decade.

But to this day many Tories and political observers point to that day exactly ten years ago when Britain catastrophically crashed out of the ERM as the day that finished off the Tory party.

Other troubles

That, it is argued, was the defining moment and the day that voters never forgot.

Many insist the party has never recovered from that day and that its poll ratings flat lined from then on.

The chancellor of the time, Norman Lamont, understandably disputes that interpretation of the polls and stresses that the Tories had plenty of other troubles.
Former Tory Prime Minister John Major
Major's government never recovered

The ERM crisis - an over used word but completely accurate in this case - played a part but was not the single cause of the party's demise, he insists. He has a point.

While the chattering classes and the City will always point to that day as a turning point it appears far less an issue for most ordinary voters who, to the greatest part, were merely observers to the crisis.

Homeowners were undoubtedly given a real scare with the massive, but temporary increase in interest rates and the overwhelming feeling that it was all running out of control. Which it was.

And, inevitably, the anti-Europeans latched onto it and gleefully revive the memory at every opportunity to press home their case against joining the euro.

'Complete shambles'

But it is not now the first thing on most voters' lips when asked to pick the issue that killed the Major government - one of the others noted above usually beats it.

What it most certainly did, however, was to underline that more general impression of uselessness surrounding the government.

And it sharpened the already bitter divisions and backbiting inside the party.

The day itself was a complete shambles in just about every respect.

Many political journalists were in Harrogate covering the Liberal conference but were ordered back to London as the crisis intensified.

The chancellor - operating from Admiralty House, as the Treasury was being refurbished - called a press conference which everyone believed was going to include his resignation.

'Paralysed by panic'

He didn't go but it was, without doubt, the end of his chancellorship.

Then there were the rumours, hotly denied, that John Major was so paralysed by panic over the crisis that he locked himself away for hours.

Lord Lamont has certainly claimed that Mr Major refused to see him as the crisis escalated although the former prime minister has flatly denied the allegation.

But whatever the impact that day had on the Tories' fortunes, one thing is absolutely clear - it is the day they would all dearly love to forget.

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16 Sep 02 | Politics
15 Sep 02 | Business
16 Sep 02 | Business
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