Heseltine to be spared the poisoned chalice

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JOHN MAJOR, completing plans for an imminent wide-ranging reshuffle of the Cabinet and all ranks of government, has resisted continuing pressure from some senior party figures to confront Michael Heseltine with an offer of the party chairmanship.

Although Wednesday, the eve of Tony Blair's near-certain election to the Labour leadership, remains a strong alternative for the reshuffle, the Prime Minister last night left open the possibility of changes today by postponing a decision on making a Commons statement on Europe until his meeting at 10am this morning with business managers.

A statement today on last Friday's emergency EU summit, or, similarly, Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow, would take up much of the time needed to complete the reshuffle in a single day.

In a surprising surge of late advice to No 10, some colleagues have been pressing the newly reinvigorated Mr Major to dramatise his shake-up and assert his authority by going against Mr Heseltine's express wishes and making him chairman to breathe new life into the party organisation.

But Mr Major is said to have accepted that such a move would be counterproductive and potentially dangerous if the President of Board of Trade were to refuse the post. The chairmanship is conventionally seen as a 'poisoned chalice' by any minister ambitious for the leadership, because it ties him so closely to the Prime Minister, but Mr Heseltine has consistently made it clear that he is personally committed to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Two focuses of Westminster gossip yesterday were the position of John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, and Lord Wakeham, Leader of the Lords. More than one minister yesterday said they would be surprised if Mr Patten was not moved from his present job - although they agreed his second year at Education had been a marked improvement on his first, which was dogged by the dispute over testing. One possibility suggested if Mr Major keeps Mr Patten in the Cabinet was to move him to Heritage, whose present incumbent, Peter Brooke, is all but certain to step down.

Lord Wakeham is said by some colleagues to be ready to go, but it is difficult to fill his role, which includes the chairmanship of a number of key committees as well as leadership of the Lords. A likely replacement would be Baroness Blatch, Minister of State at Education. Lady Blatch has privately expressed doubts over whether she wants a Cabinet job but senior colleagues expect her to be ready to answer the call if Mr Major sends for her.

Although David Hunt, the Employment Secretary, is still widely assumed in Westminster to be the favourite for chairman, there were widely differing views within government ranks over Mr Major's choice.

Some sources discounted persistent suggestions that the chairman could be Virginia Bottomley or either of two potential Cabinet newcomers, Jeremy Hanley and Brian Mawhinney, respectively Minister of State at Defence and Health. Mr Mawhinney looks a near-certainty for promotion, with Stephen Dorrell, the Financial Secretary at the Treasury, an even safer bet for entry into the Cabinet. Other possible candidates for promotion from the rank just below the Cabinet were Jonathan Aitken (Defence) and Sir George Young (Housing).

Among the less generally canvassed names David Maclean (Home Office) was seen as a possible 'wild card' contender for the Chief Whip's post if Richard Ryder were to move. Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, could go to Transport if John MacGregor resigns or is offered another post.

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