Heseltine's rejection of party role fuels leadership rumours

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HESELTINE yesterday in effect ruled himself out as the next chairman of the Conservative Party, and failed to dampen speculation about his leadership ambitions.

The President of the Board of Trade sought to head off the campaign within the Tory party for him to replace Sir Norman Fowler as chairman by emphasising that he had unfinished business at the Department of Trade and Industry.

He said on BBC Radio: 'I feel deeply about the need to create wealth in this country. I always wanted to do the job of President of the Board of Trade.

'People have been very kind about the changes that have taken place, and how much they welcome them, and how much more there is to do. The Prime Minister has been generous to a fault to me in giving me the opportunity to help him with the policies in which we both believe. There is a big job still to be done.'

That was seen by those close to Mr Major as an attempt to end the calls for him to be made party chairman, seen by opponents as a way to kill his leadership ambitions. 'It's a poisoned chalice after the local elections and the European elections,' said one Labour source.

Mr Heseltine insisted he was not running for the leadership, and said Mr Major would have his backing to win the next election: 'You can't stop people gossiping and journalists asking questions . . . It is grist to your mill. It is not grist to mine. I am telling you categorically I think John Major will remain in place.'

Many Tory MPs, including those on the right, are talking up the prospect of Mr Heseltine as the next leader, because of his charisma and ability to appeal to their Thatcherite instincts. His chances were enhanced by a 'Euro-sceptic' speech last week and a rousing performance in the Commons.

His denials failed to convince some ministers. One said: 'He is running the campaign himself. If the June elections went really badly and derailed the boss, it would not bother him too much provided he was seen to have been loyal.' Michael Howard, 52, the Home Secretary, dismissed the prospect of Mr Heseltine, 61, replacing John Major, 50. 'I believe he will be Prime Minister for a long time and when the time comes for him to hand over to somebody else, I don't think it will be to an older man,' he said.

Those close to Mr Major have told the Prime Minister that if he is challenged in the autumn, he should learn from the mistakes of Baroness Thatcher by running an effective leadership campaign.

Some of Mr Major's supporters are ready to campaign for him. But there is confidence in the Major camp that his determination to stay and fight has been underestimated.

Referring to the Scott inquiry, Mr Heseltine told the BBC that he supported the 'broad view' put forward by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, concerning security issues and advice to ministers. 'I do not believe in revealing Britain's security secrets. Nor should we run the risk of politicising the civil service by being indiscriminate with the release of documents which are basically advice to ministers.'