British finance minister under fire over legal fees, personal finances

December 01, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The scent of political scandal is in the air again.

This time all eyes are drawn to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, the man with the smile of the Cheshire Cat.

Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes sniffed the air yesterday in the House of Commons and said he detected "something rotten in the state of Britain." Mr. Hughes said he was appalled that Mr. Lamont received about $7,000 from the Treasury to pay legal fees incurred in the process of evicting a tenant from his house in London.

The tenant is a young sexual therapist named Sara Dale with a busy clientele and a tendency to throw kisses to newspaper and television cameramen.

A lot of people in and out of Parliament think that, because this was a private legal dispute between Mr. Lamont and his unwanted tenant, the government had no business helping pay for it.

"What has Britain come to?" asked Mr. Hughes, not really expecting an answer, at least not from Mr. Lamont.

Calls are heard from within the Conservative Party itself for Mr. Lamont's resignation, though these have remained anonymous, and Prime Minister John Major has let it be known he would not consider it.

The government payout scandal is not the only matter troubling Mr. Lamont as a front line minister. Other misfortunes crowd around him.

One of these is mortifying. The other suggests -- but does not prove -- the kind of indiscretion that had brought down in September Mr. Lamont's former fellow minister, David Mellor, the Heritage secretary who had a talkative girlfriend with innovative sexual instincts.

Mr. Lamont insists he is the victim of a dirty tricks campaign.

As it was with Mr. Mellor, Mr. Lamont was initially hoisted by the tabloid press. It was The Sun that reported last week that the man responsible for the nation's finances was having difficulty with at least one aspect of his personal finances.

The newspaper learned from an informant inside the National Westminster Bank that Mr. Lamont was overdrawn by about $700 on the spending limit on one of his credit cards. Not only that. He had been overdrawn about 22 times in the past eight years and had been warned by the bank five times for his negligence.

The questions that followed were inevitable: Is this any way for the man who makes economic policy for this country to behave? Or how can a man who can't pay his debts on time take care of the nation's economy? Again, they were questions for which few answers were offered. The government just got angry with the bank for having a snitch in its employ.

Then came the potentially more embarrassing incident. Another tabloid, The Evening Standard, learning that Mr. Lamont recently visited a Thresher's wine shop in a rather seedy part of London, sent a reporter around to ask the manager what the chancellor had purchased.

A bottle of champagne and a pack of cigarettes, said John Onanugu.

Some among those who study the habits and behavior of the people at the top of the political pole in this country recalled that Mr. Lamont does not smoke cigarettes, nor does his wife. Could they have been for someone else? Could the chancellor have a friend, as Mr. Mellor had?

Thus began the silliest of Norman Lamont's three crises, known here as Threshergate.

Mr. Lamont denied he had appeared at the wine shop in question. The chancellor did admit to visiting a Thresher's wine shop, but one in a better neighborhood. Instead of champagne he said he purchased three bottles of less festive wine. Thresher's even turned over his receipt to the newspapers, which published it.

Everything would probably have been all right for Mr. Lamont except for two developments. First, Mr. Onanugu declined to change his story, or give any hint he might have been wrong. And other employees supported him.

Second, the newspaper The Independent revealed on Sunday that Thresher's, owned by the Whitbread beverage company, is a major contributor to the Conservative Party. And the receipt given as evidence of Mr. Lamont's purchase in a more respectable neighborhood had the location of the wine shop blotted out.

Last night Thresher's issued a statement saying that Mr. Onanugu, and another employee, David Newton, had admitted "totally fabricating" the story of Mr. Lamont's visit. They were being disciplined, the company said.

This announcement had two immediate effects. It took some of the heat off Mr. Lamont among those in his own party. Among those not inclined to support him, it raised the suspicion level and the question why the two liquor store employees would jeopardize their jobs with such a gambit.

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