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Saturday, October 2, 1999 Published at 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK

UK Politics

Black Wednesday row irrelevant - Widdecombe

Bankers saw the pound's value plummet

Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe says the row between John Major and Norman Lamont over the Black Wednesday crisis of 1992 will not overshadow this week's Tory conference.

The former prime minister has dismissed assertions by Lord Lamont that he was incapable of handling the chain of events that saw sterling crash out of the European exchange rate mechanism.

BBC Political Editor Robin Oakley: Conflicting evidence
In the forthcoming BBC One series, The Major Years, he denies avoiding meetings with his then chancellor as the crisis worsened.

"It just beggars belief that if the chancellor of the exchequer on a day like Wednesday, 16 September wanted to see the prime minister that anybody kept him at a distance. It just is inconceivable," Mr Major says.

"If the chancellor had wanted to see me and said, 'This is important, I must see the prime minister immediately', it would have happened."

In extracts from his memoirs, Lord Lamont says he asked to see the prime minister straightaway, but was not allowed to see him until 12.45pm, after Mr Major had finished a meeting with Tory backbenchers.

[ image: Ann Widdecombe says the Tories are looking forward, not back]
Ann Widdecombe says the Tories are looking forward, not back
During this time, sterling plummeted as billions of pounds were sold on the foreign exchange markets.

Miss Widdecombe said the row was irrelevant to the Tory party, which begins its party conference in Blackpool on Sunday.

She told the BBC: "What I'm interested in, and what I genuinely think everybody else is interested in, is not what happened in 1992 but what's going to happen in the next few years."

Mr Major denies his former chancellor made any request for a meeting and asks why he failed to interrupt a meeting with an issue of such importance.

"Is the chancellor so timid on an issue like this when sterling is falling through the floor that he wasn't prepared to walk across the road and interrupt a meeting? I simply cannot believe that is the case.

John Major on Lord Lamont's "inconceivable" assertions
"The fact of the matter is that there was no request for me to see Norman between 11.00 and 12.45. No request to come to the phone and take a phone call from him."

Lord Lamont says when the pound failed to move despite a rise in interest rates, he wanted to suspend Britain's membership of the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) "as quickly as possible to stop the haemorrhaging of our reserves".

[ image: John Major: Norman Lamont could have demanded a meeting]
John Major: Norman Lamont could have demanded a meeting
It was only at 5pm the decision was taken to suspend membership of the ERM - "hours too late", according to Lord Lamont.

Mr Major, who will not be at Blackpool next week, says: "I thought Norman was wrong about suspension and so did all the rest of our colleagues. He didn't advance a credible case for suspension. He didn't do it then and he didn't do it subsequently".

The latest revelations, coming on the eve of the Conservative Party conference, are part of a long-running dispute between Mr Major and Lord Lamont, both of whom will see their memoirs published this month.

Former Conservative party chairman Sir Norman Fowler: "Relations between Major and Thatcher became very bad"
Former Cabinet minister Norman Fowler backed Mr Major's version of events.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "During Black Wednesday John Major could not be fairly be criticised for dithering.

"My impression was of a man in control and a man who was calm in all the circumstances and who was making all the decisions."

The Major Years will be shown on BBC One from Monday, 11 October at 10pm.

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