Heseltine: I will not steal the limelight

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Chief Political Correspondent

Michael Heseltine assured Cabinet colleagues yesterday that he would not let them down by using his powerful new role as Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary to "run rampant" over John Major's government.

But as Mr Heseltine went out of his way to reassure the Cabinet, he flexed his muscles over policy by suggesting that spending on education and training should take priority over tax cuts, and opposed a referendum on Britain's entry to a single European currency.

Denying he would "steal the limelight" of his Cabinet colleagues, the Deputy Prime Minister nevertheless made it clear he would seek to influence policy across a wide range of issues in the plethora of Cabinet committees which he either chairs or is a member of.

"Influencing policy behind closed doors is very much part of the responsibility I have. What I am not in the business of doing is letting down my colleagues," Mr Heseltine said on BBC1's On The Record.

His emergence as the winner from the horse-trading in the Cabinet reshuffle after John Major's leadership victory alarmed leading right-wing Tory MPs. One senior source predicted there would be tensions between Mr Heseltine and the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, over the framing of the Budget, already under way.

"Spending ministers may go to Heseltine to support their bids. Will Gillian Shephard [Secretary of State for Education] go to Heseltine and say: 'I expect you to swing behind me'? He could become a one-man Star Chamber," said one senior Tory.

As further details began to emerge of the Deputy Prime Minister's Whitehall empire, ceded to Mr Heseltine by Mr Major in lengthy negotiations, Mr Heseltine said he owed his own authority to the Prime Minister's support and the backing of Cabinet colleagues. Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, denied that Mr Heseltine had been given his new role as part of a deal for Heseltine supporters voting for Mr Major. But a leading right-wing Tory MP said the Prime Minister had paid a "rather ruinous price" for his victory.

Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, who stood down last week in the reshuffle, hinted on BBC1's Breakfast With Frost that a referendum could be added to the manifesto pledges on Europe for the next election, which many MPs believe would help unite the party. But Mr Heseltine made it clear that he would use his influence to block this. Mr Major had left open the option of a referendum, Mr Heseltine said. "That's right and, therefore, there will be a discussion and a decision, but there won't be one ... when did you say? 1999?"

Mr Heseltine and the Prime Minister's office sought yesterday to scotch rumours, repeated in a Sunday Times report, that Mr Major had offered Mr Heseltine the Chancellor's job in the reshuffle. The report angered Mr Clarke, Mr Heseltine and Mr Major and was denied in unusually strong terms.

Heseltine's empire, page 2