The MT diary: Lament for Lamont; Hermitage home-from-home; Cameron de-clutters; ID card tricks

These days, I don't often come across solid evidence that a crime has been committed. At the FSA, of course, it was an everyday occurrence. But in a university, luckily, it doesn't happen very much. So I was shocked the other day, as I slaved over a cold keyboard, to discover clear proof of a particularly heartless theft.

by Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I'm editing a book of reminiscences of five past Chancellors of the Exchequer. One is Norman Lamont, and for the footnotes I needed a reference to his own memoirs. So I checked on my favourite website,, where you can find - and buy - almost any book imaginable, even politicians' memoirs.

I found the reference, no problem at all, to In Office, which he wrote after leaving the Cabinet. And I discovered that for a mere £70, you can buy a copy inscribed 'For James and Emma, many congratulations on your forthcoming marriage, Norman Lamont'.

Now it is quite inconceivable that James Major (or indeed Emma Noble, if she inherited the family's economics bookshelves in the divorce settlement) could have sold such a splendid wedding gift into the book trade. Foul play must have been involved. The police have been informed.

As a refuge from the Chancellors, I spent a few days in St Petersburg, where little tax is collected, except from foreigners in the form of outrageous hotel and restaurant bills.

It was -15 degrees C, so walks were short and sharp, with long spells in The Idiot cafe, a Dostoyevsky theme pub, which, oddly, is cosier than the Charles Dickens round the corner. If only it had been open in the 1860s, perhaps Raskolnikov would never have got to the moneylender's flat with his axe, and Crime and Punishment would have been a cheerful short story.

The Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace is the main attraction, and worth the trip in itself. Even off-season in the permafrost, it is congested with Italian culture vultures and Finnish bus parties. But you can avoid the crowds by visiting the English wing. Not a soul was there to see the Gainsborough, the Wrights of Derby or Catherine the Great's Wedgwood teapots. How people can prefer to crowd around the Leonardos and El Grecos, I will never know.

From the Winter Palace you can see the Aurora, the elderly cruiser that fired a blank round in October 1917 to signal that the revolution was under way. It seems as though HMS Wellington on the Thames must have put a similar shot over Central Office, because it's revolution time in the Conservative Party. Old Tory policies are defenestrated day by day.

Private healthcare alongside the NHS? Out of the question. Tax cuts? Only as part of a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. University top-up fees? Love them - the higher, the better (for the rich). The party of business? No way - can't stand those CBI wallahs. Next thing we know, David Cameron will be taking The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists on his Desert Island.

Simon Heffer, Irwin Stelzer, Melanie Phillips and the Wall Street Journal are furious. All their cherished beliefs are flying out the window as Bob Geldof and Zac Goldsmith come in through the front door.

Where will this end? Hard to say. But the Tories will need to find a way of distancing themselves from Labour at the next election, and sitting alongside Alessandra Mussolini and Jean-Marie Le Pen in the European Parliament doesn't seem quite enough.

For the moment, indeed, Europe looks quiet. It is hard to work up a sweat about it, though the Today programme did its best, allowing UKIP to secure top spot for Barroso in their silly 'Who Runs Britain?' poll. The Budget deal, which could have gone very badly, seems to have been a three-day wonder.

Maybe the Austrians will help the Tories out. Since they joined, public support for the EU in Austria has collapsed, in the face of the French referendum, immigration from eastern Europe and the threat of Turkish accession. Is Chancellor Schussel daunted? Not on your leben. If the people are doubtful, that's the time for a Great Leap Forward. So he has proposed a new European tax, placed in the hands of the Commission.

This exciting idea could play nicely among the Eurosceptics here. But, once again, the Conservatives would be preaching to the choir. How to reach the congregation - that is the question.

Perhaps ID cards are part of the answer. The Government seems determined to press on with a scheme of uncertain cost and uncertain benefit.

A group of academics from the LSE produced a 300-page assessment of the Identity Card Bill, which argued that the costs would be higher than the Government's estimates. They (and I, who had nothing to do with it) have since been abused and traduced by the Home Office. Most recently, Baroness Scotland (those few members of the Government who aren't Scots have to show a Caledonian connection somehow) said: 'The LSE report did not provide any background information on how the figures were calculated.' She missed the chapters on Cost Assumptions and Cost Projections, obviously.

When ministers start on the pork pies, you can assume that their proposals are in trouble. Over to you, Mr Cameron. It's a good civil liberties issue that ought to appeal to the Notting Hill set.

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