Man of principle delivers PM a right upper cut

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The Independent Online
Praise where praise is due. The outgoing Paymaster General, David Heathcoat-Amory, has achieved relatively high office despite his almost crippling social disadvantages.

Nephew of a Chancellor of the Exchequer, owner of vast estates in Scotland, educated at Eton and Balliol, he could easily have ended up - as have so many of what is called the "overclass" - bankrupt and penniless, doing time for fraud.

But Mr H-A has battled through to achieve that rarest of feats - resigning from John Major's government on a point of principle.

Not that he was in the chamber yesterday. For a start he was, of course, too busy resigning. This involves exchanges of letters with the Prime Minister (pledging eternal support on everything except what really matters), having clear-the-air chats with constituency activists (invariably lieutenant colonels or publicans) and being described as "decadent" by David Mellor - who knows whereof he speaks.

Anyway, real politics rarely makes much of an appearance in the House. In this case there was no resignation statement for MPs to listen to and nothing of substance for them to debate. So they had to improvise, attempting to draw the discussion off completely different matters to what they knew was the day's really important business.

In some sessions (such as, say, overseas aid) this is quite difficult. Getting from the Sudan to the single currency taxes even the most flexible imagination. But in Questions to the Deputy Prime Minister it is terribly easy. That is because Mr Heseltine is responsible for everything. Mr Major made him responsible for everything to compensate him for failing to gain the leadership. But something has gone wrong. As one listens to Hezza tackle questions on small business, privatisation, competitiveness, Information technology and "policy co-ordination" one becomes increasingly aware that in this case, more is less.

But even if he is doing nothing, Hezza is doing it magnificently. A weekend in the sun had left him with a magnificent tan, his hair and eyebrows a deep gold. The latter, increasingly Healeyesque in size, now resemble the wings on a golden eagle. One day they will propel Mr Heseltine skywards, from where he will smile down upon us.

Several MPs had referred to H-A before Prescott had a go, pointing out that Mr Heseltine (in an earlier radio performance) had accepted the Paymaster's resignation before it had even been made. "He is the Mystic Meg of the Tory Party," Prescott said mischievously.

But riding to Mr Heseltine's aid came the member for Castle Point, Robert Spink. I have always thought Spink was too small a name to cover a whole human being. But Mr Spink has gradually diminished - his chin retreating, his voice declining -until he and his meagre name fit each other. And what Mr Spink - without any irony - wanted to know was this: would Mr Heseltine ensure that good news was disseminated to the country this summer? Now that did make Mr Prescott laugh.

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