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Books: Blond ambition

John Rentoul investigates the nearly man of high politics
Michael Heseltine: a life by Michael Crick, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20

At last the flame of the intense ambition which has defined Michael Heseltine is out. Many times it seemed dead, only to spring up again and blaze as fiercely as his oratory, one of the minor wonders of modern British politics. But his last chance to make it to 10 Downing Street was as a stop-gap if something happened to John Major before the general election. Now it is all over, except for the history books.

The books come sooner now in our foreshortened times, and so here is Michael Crick to put What Went Wrong in hard covers. Heseltine is a ripe- looking subject for what the blurb calls "investigative biography": the nearly man of high politics, who offered a more credible alternative to Thatcherism than the 1980s Labour Party, but who always came second - which is where his rise ended, as Deputy Prime Minister.

This book is a top-class example of a relatively new genre, applying the techniques of serious historical study to practising politicians. Crick is a superb journalist and a plain writer, which I mean as the highest compliment. But where with his biography of Jeffrey Archer we felt an inveterate mythmaker was caught bang to rights against a wall of fact, with Heseltine we feel a sense of disappointment at there being less to the subject than meets the eye.

I looked forward to discovering the definitive answers to three puzzles I thought central to Heseltine's career. Did he cut any corners on his way to a fortune? Did he duck National Service? And what deal did he strike to become DPM? In each case, Crick is fair, thorough and clear. He is, after all, the journalist who discovered Major's Affair With The Older Woman by slogging through electoral registers. He went through them again for Heseltine's addresses (a daunting task) but the answers are less interesting.

Heseltine made his money - Crick estimates "at least pounds 150 million" - the way he says he did. Small-time property and publishing preceded the triple coup of launching Management Today, Campaign and Accountancy Age in three years, 1966-69. Each tapped a huge market for classified advertising. And that, more or less, was that. Even his infamous practice of paying bills late seems innocuous in context. He was running a hotel that was barely solvent: late payment was better than never.

What emerges in the early chapters is a sense of Heseltine's honesty: not a principled honesty, but an entirely pragmatic one. As well as the well-known story of his mapping out his future on the back of an envelope, Crick unearths several assertions by him - or inferences by his colleagues - that he had to be careful because "I'm going to be Prime Minister by the time I'm 50".

This effectively gives the plot away at the beginning. Despite snobbery of both left and right that such a swashbuckling figure must have something to hide, we know Heseltine will emerge unscathed.

His National Service is perhaps the least savoury episode, but Crick is scrupulous in measuring out only a mild rebuke. Yes, he got out early. But he was making legitimate use of the exemption for parliamentary candidates. Standing in a hopeless seat was not an empty device for him. On the other hand, he only served eight months of his compulsory two years, and managed to avoid returning by pleading it would damage his business, on which his mother and sister depended. This, says Crick, was "over-egging the pudding somewhat", and he seems to have benefited from the War Office's class-biased sympathy.

My third question, about the deal which secured Heseltine the title and the powers of secundus inter pares, receives a less full answer. Of course, only two people really know what happened during Heseltine's long meeting with Major on the morning of the Tory leadership election 18 months ago. Major survived John Redwood's challenge, and the next day Heseltine was appointed DPM.

Crick reveals that Heseltine had made contingency plans to run for the leadership if Major had been forced out in the first ballot. If that had been known at the time it would have weakened his claims to utter loyalty. But it is not the nub of the matter, because Heseltine had decided that he would be unlikely to win a second ballot. DPM was the price of his good behaviour during the leadership contest, and a consolation prize which also kept a tiny flame of ambition alive.

We will have to wait for further memoirs to find out more. In the meantime, this book gives history's interim verdict: that Heseltine failed to inspire and reward his supporters. It is well-known that Margaret Thatcher's campaign for the votes of Tory MPs in the 1990 leadership election was a shambles; Crick reveals that Heseltine's was poorly-run too. His circle of acolytes was too small and too marginal to carry enough weight.

There is an absence of amateur psychologising about Crick's book which is refreshing, but it means Heseltine's motivations remain obscure. He was never a warm person, he failed to cultivate potential allies and his honesty about his ambition made him disliked. But why did that flame burn so long and so brightly? We still do not know.