Media: Hastings vs Heffer: round two: A patrician editor of the Tory old school makes a Thatcherite hothead his deputy. What's going on? Michael Leapman reads between the lines of the Telegraph

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For journalists as for politicians, a good rule about appointing a deputy is never to choose someone who might threaten your own position. Max Hastings seems to have ignored this in recruiting the 34-year-old Simon Heffer as a deputy editor on the Daily Telegraph. Newspaper pundits and gossips, in their rare free moments from assessing the Times/Telegraph price war this week, have been trying to guess just why he did it.

Vipers and bosoms have figured in their imagery. There has been speculation about the role of Conrad Black, the Telegraph's proprietor, a friend of Heffer's and, like him, a supporter of the Tory right. And how does it all tie in with the decision to cut the price of the paper?

The basic plot is this. Soon after being made editor of the Telegraph in 1986, Hastings hired Heffer, then a 26-year-old medical journalist who had written editorials for the Times criticising the workings of the welfare state.

Heffer joined a team of highly opinionated leader writers which included Daniel Johnson, son of the fiery right-wing convert Paul Johnson, and Edward Pearce, who now writes for the Guardian and New Statesman. So fierce were the quarrels between them, sometimes about abstruse points of Tory ideology, that Hastings had to ask Trevor Grove, a senior aide, to step in and calm them down. Last week it was Grove's job as deputy editor that Heffer took, jointly with the former features editor, Veronica Wadley.

In the Eighties, Hastings disagreed with a lot of Heffer's leaders. He began to get impatient with the red-headed firebrand's views and his lack of restraint in expressing them.

The core of the Heffer philosophy is a deep dislike of universal welfare, a belief that while the halt and the lame, the 'deserving poor', should be helped, the able-bodied should be encouraged to stand on their own feet rather than scrounging from taxpayers. He has, too, been a Euro-sceptic since before the phrase was invented. At 14, although a convinced Conservative, he delivered leaflets for the Bennite Frances Morrellin his home constituency of Chelmsford, Essex, because he disapproved so strongly of Edward Heath's pro-European views.

Years later he became a close friend and disciple of someone else who had advocated voting Labour for the same reason - Enoch Powell. 'They potter around East Anglian churches together,' said a friend.

Another controversial political friend is John Patten, the Education Secretary, godfather to Heffer's first child.

At Cambridge in the early Eighties Heffer took part eagerly in the factional politics of the University Conservative Association. It was the heady start of the Thatcher revolution, and he took up the cudgels on its behalf, flaying the 'wets' with enthusiasm. He was expelled from the Association for breaking its rules by canvassing in an election for office. 'In those days he was overbearing and a bit menacing,' a fellow student recalls.

'Pompous' is another word that crops up when people talk about him. 'He never seems to have been any younger than about 40,' says a colleague.

While Max Hastings would not describe himself as a wet, he is from the patrician Conservative tradition and a devotee of field sports. The son of the writer Macdonald Hastings and the journalist Anne Scott-James, he was educated at Charterhouse. Heffer's parents, both tax inspectors, sent him to King Edward VI Grammar School at Chelmsford - the alma mater of that other archetypal Essex Man, Norman Fowler.

The Telegraph's political line under Hastings has been to the left of Margaret Thatcher - a position which Conrad Black, who stands if anything to her right, was prepared to tolerate while the paper was making him plenty of money and selling more than a million copies a day. On the keynote issue of entry into the European exchange rate mechanism, which contributed to Mrs Thatcher's downfall, Hastings was for it while Heffer was against it.

Yet the two men's relationship survived until 1991, when Dominic Lawson, editor of the Telegraph's sister publication the Spectator, offered Heffer the job of deputy editor. Both he and Hastings breathed a sigh of relief.

So what made Hastings turn last week to a man whose views he so profoundly distrusted only three years ago? Was it a sign of panic at the loss of circulation caused by the Times's price-cutting? A feeling that things were slipping from his control?

That would be the most obvious explanation. Hastings says that the cut in the paper's price was suggested to Black by him and Stephen Grabiner, the new managing director. It would not have been outrageous for Black to reply: 'Sure, we'll cut the price - but you must take my friend Simon back as your deputy.'

The problem with that scenario is that everyone concerned denies it. Hastings says he had come to the conclusion that he needed a strong political voice in his innermost counsels, for neither he nor Grove regard politics as their strong suit. The political content of the paper, he thought, had lacked bite since Charles Moore left to become editor of the Sunday Telegraph in 1992.

And what about Black's role? He says that far from engineering Heffer's appointment, he was surprised to hear about it, even though the two men had lunched together a few days earlier.

Heffer has been back at the Telegraph for only a few days, but some of the paper's recent editorials seem to carry his fingerprints. On Saturday: 'People must not be allowed to languish indefinitely on benefit . . . Means must be conceived of discouraging single motherhood among young women who then become reliant on the state.' On Monday: 'Mr Major's robust stand at Corfu could prove one of the furthest reaching and most positive acts of his prime ministership.'

Something else in Saturday's Telegraph may be seen as significant by conspiracy theorists. Hastings had an article in its 'First Love' series about his early passion for a young sports car, in which he wrote: 'For the first time in more than 20 years I sat in an MGB at 70mph with the roof down and tried to decide whether I was past it.'

On balance, that is unlikely to have been a coded farewell. A man who has lasted eight years as editor to a maverick proprietor has survival skills that are not to be underrated.

But Hastings has now acknowledged implicitly that he needs Heffer. Heffer does not need Hastings while he keeps Black's friendship. If it all ends in tears, they are unlikely to be Simon Heffer's.

(Photographs omitted)