Chancellor Lamont falls victim to the domino theory

DENNIS Skinner, arguably Labour's loudest MP, the permanent heckler in the sports jacket at the front of his party's ranks in the Commons, challenged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to a game of dominos this week.

He told him that he would teach Norman Lamont how to play the game of threes and fives and give the winnings to old folk to help them pay the new VAT charge on fuel bills.

The Chancellor might be taking him up. Certainly from the Press Gallery it looked as if he moved opposite to Dennis and discussed the merits of the game. Perhaps there shall be news of what aspires soon.

Of course Norman might not win. This week he admitted that he sometimes gets his numbers ''muddled up''.

MPs long suspicious about his mathematical prowess were in fits of giggles when the Chancellor got confused trying to explain why Britain needs to borrow GBP50 billion when addressing a select committee.

He asked them to look at the so-called Budget Red Book which contains Treasury economic predictions for the next three years. At first the Chancellor instructed them to look at table 2:3. He stopped and whispered something to an aide, Sir Terence Burns, and changed his request to table 2:5.

''Sir Terence is very good,'' he said. ''I always get my threes and fives muddled up.'' This would have all gone unnoticed were it not another gaffe by the man who is getting a reputation for seemingly always saying the wrong things at the wrong times.

Last week he was voted the most unpopular Chancellor since World War II, and there was outrage when he commented before the election last year that unemployment was a ''price worth paying'' to bring inflation down. It has been quoted against him many times of late.

He admitted that after ''Black Wednesday'' last September, when he raised interest rates three times only to bring the pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, he was singing ''everything's going my way'' from the musical Oklahoma! in the bath .

During the Budget last year he even tinkered with a tax on mobile phones accusing them of being a curse in restaurants - which seemed a pretty elitist stance to take.

Mr Lamont, though, is not the first Chancellor to have problems with figures. In 1962, when Britain's balance of payments were again a critical issue, Sir Alec Douglas-Home admitted: ''When I have to read economic documents I have a box of matches and start moving them into position to simplify and illustrate the points to myself. I sometimes wish the economists did too.'' I BELIEVE Chris Patten won't be there in Bath today even though he arrived in Britain last night. A new museum devoted to the art of Southeast Asia - and that is including Hongkong and China - is being opened in the city today, the Governor's former constituency. There will be the usual Lion Dance but no politicians except the Mayor of Bath, Councillor Eric Snook. Even Don Foster, the man who pipped Patten is staying away. Perhaps the good people of the city have had enough of politicians.

THAT friend of Hongkong Paddy Ashdown must be hardly able to believe his luck. After pressing for proportional representation as the voting system for Britain for years, knowing it is the only way his Liberal Democrats will ever gain enough seats to influence power, Labour appears to be coming around to his way of thinking.

Labour is examining the problem of its poor election performances for the past 14 years knowing it faces a potentially harder task at the next election as boundary changes will create more potentially Tory seats. Now a Labour working party, the Plant Commission, headed by Lord Plant the professor of politics at Southampton University, has voted in favour of the party adopting an amended form of PR as policy.

It is a deeply divisive issue with many in the party believing it is vital for Labour to present a new modern, fairer image and trounce the Tories. But those believed to be against it include party leader John Smith and former Hongkong spokesman George Foulkes who has already decried the proposals.

Under the system proposed, the Liberal Democrats would have taken 45 to 48 seats instead of 20 last April and most of them in the South of England. This would have produced a hung Parliament and arguably a deal with Labour on power-sharing.

Of course this isn't true proportional representation. Under other schemes, the Liberal Democrats would have taken well over 100 seats. But fairer forms of PR would have meant a real change in the constituency system, either with larger multi-member constituencies, or ironically, a smaller number of single member constituencies which would tread on too many people's toes.

There are great vested interests at stake, but democracy and what it means is once again the subject of conversation here.