In a resounding call for the party to unite behind the Prime Minister, Mr Heseltine launched a devastating assault on the party's Euro-sceptic right and sections of the national press for seeking to inflict on the Conservative Party "an ideological purity" which would sacrifice its natural and all-important support in "middle England".
Mr Heseltine used all his authority as the party's most dazzling orator - as well as the most frequently canvassed potential pre-election successor to Mr Major - to praise his leader's "bold and brave campaigning skills". He said those skills, "honed in the heat of battle", would be at the party's disposal in the next election.
Clearly warning that Mr Major's right-wing tormentors risked throwing away the general election, Mr Heseltine declared: "I find it incomprehensible that the more Euro-sceptic some people and newspapers become, the more they seem to risk the prospects of a craven Labour government, committed to the very policies they hate most."
Mr Heseltine's speech was delivered to the Tory Reform Group. It came in the midst of what normally imperturbable ministers acknowledged as an "unpredictable" period of "turbulence" ahead of the expected loss of 500 or more council seats tomorrow.
Wishful hints from some MPs on the right that Mr Major might yet go, passing the leadership to Mr Heseltine in a "bloodless" coup, were strongly undermined by unmistakeable signs that John Redwood, last year's challenger, would stand again.
Earlier, Downing Street launched a swift operation to underpin the message that the Prime Minister had no intention of quitting, after Mr Major refused to co-operate in what he called opposition "fantasy".
During exchanges in the Commons, peppered with mock-friendly opposition questions about whether he had made a pact with Mr Heseltine to stand down, George Foulkes, the Labour MP, asked for a "categorical assurance that however many seats your party lose on Thursday, you will lead your party into the general election". Mr Major surprised a number of senior Tory MPs by merely saying he had "no intention of accommodating your silly question".
Downing Street moved quickly to emphasise that Mr Major would lead the party into the next election. It took the unusual step of dismissing as "absolute baloney" rumours that a pact was struck when Mr Heseltine was promoted after Mr Major's re-election as leader in the summer of 1995. That was later reinforced when it was said on Mr Heseltine's behalf that such reports were "pathetic".
In what could equally be interpreted as a warning to Mr Major not to bow further to the Euro-sceptics, Mr Heseltine said every party leader faced the challenge of "indentifying the point" at which "reinforcing the wishes, prejudice, and self-interest of a party's committed supporters may [put off] ... the uncommitted but essential votes without which electoral success is impossible."
The fact that Mr Heseltine mounted a more robust defence of the Mr Major position than did the Prime Minister himself in the Commons will no doubt encourage some of his admirers, particularly on the left of the party, to hope that Mr Heseltine will still accede to the leadership. John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, claimed Mr Heseltine's speech was a "thinly disguised manifesto for his own candidature."
But the Deputy Prime Minister concluded with an unequivocal endorsement of the "balance" struck by Mr Major's speech on Europe last week. He declared: "He is now entitled to our united support, which is the essential ingredient in our determination to win again."Reuse content