Heseltine rejects the 'poisoned chalice': Challenge to Major over job as party chairman

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HESELTINE yesterday threw down the gauntlet to John Major by making it clear he did not wish to succeed Sir Norman Fowler as chairman of the Conservative Party in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

The President of the Board of Trade defiantly ruled himself out after fresh calls yesterday by Kenneth Baker, the former party chairman, for Mr Heseltine to be appointed the Tories' 'drum major' for the next general election. As chairman, Mr Heseltine's chances of eventually becoming Prime Minister would be much reduced.

'My interest is in being President of the Board of Trade. Everybody knows that. I think there have been too many changes in this department over . . . past years. And my interest is in staying where I am,' Mr Heseltine said.

Mr Baker said on BBC radio that the Tory party needed a 'street fighter' to counter the threat posed by Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown. 'The one who most fills that role most certainly would be Michael Heseltine,' said Mr Baker.

Mr Baker's remarks put pressure on Mr Major to take up the challenge and appoint Mr Heseltine regardless of his public and private signals that he did not want the job. It was an offer Mr Heseltine could not refuse, Mr Baker said.

After escaping disaster in the European elections, Mr Major may feel strong enough to call Mr Heseltine's bluff. The calls for Mr Major's resignation have died away, and Mr Heseltine's threat to his leadership would be diminished by making him the chairman.

Support for Mr Heseltine to be made party chairman has been growing among Tory MPs who see him as one of the few people capable of winning back desaffected Tory voters, particularly the 'blue rinse' women.

A source close to him said: 'The right wing originally saw it as a way of neutralising Hezza, but they now think he is the best man for the job. That is flattering but Michael has a lot to do at the DTI.'

Allies of Mr Major said the Prime Minister would be wary about appointing Mr Heseltine to Conservative Central Office, with the risk that it could become an alternative power base. Under Sir Norman's chairmanship, the tensions between 10 Downing Street and Central Office ended.

As party chairman, Mr Heseltine, who has made no effort to conceal his ambition to be Prime Minister, would be tied by party loyalty to Mr Major. His supporters believe his appointment would be a poisoned chalice, ending any hope of winning the leadership. It would remove him from the centre stage at Westminster and make Mr Heseltine the scapegoat if the Tories lost the next election.

His allies hope his intervention has left Mr Major with little choice but to look elsewhere for a campaigning chairman. David Hunt, the Secretary of State for Employment, is the front runner, but Mr Baker said he was 'a bit like Mr Major . . . It's like a Hollywood movie. You want a hard cop and a soft cop. The party has got to have a hard cop.'

Tory insiders said Mr Major had yet to decide on his choice of chairman. Mr Hunt was 'only a possibility', and Lord Archer, the novelist, has been ruled out.

Ministers were yesterday on the alert for a reshuffle, which never came. Downing Street sources strongly hinted the reshuffle will be delayed until towards the end of July but ministers are braced for weeks of speculation about their positions. Tory strategists believe the reshuffle will consolidate Mr Major's authority after he led the Tories to defeat in the local and European elections. He is under pressure to make it clear to the 'bastards' in the Cabinet that he will not tolerate further breaches of discipline on Europe.

Cabinet hokey-cokey, page 4

Leading article, page 10