Right breathe again as Hezza bows out

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The Independent Online
Michael Heseltine stood down from the Conservative leadership race last night - the irony of his decision is that, this time, he might just have won it.

Only on Friday some pro-European Conservatives had discussed the prospects for their wing of the party, and Mr Heseltine figured prominently.

True, there were always powerful arguments against backing a 64-year- old, even one who had managed one of the greatest political comebacks in recent history. His age was a considerable handicap given the likelihood that it will take not one but two parliaments for the Tories to return to power. Mr Heseltine will probably be 69 at the next election; Mr Blair just 48. Even before yesterday's scare Mr Heseltine's health was a considerable factor, and his wife was said to be urging him not to stand.

Nevertheless the left of the party, and to a lesser extent sections of the right, were beginning to see Mr Heseltine as a solution, if perhaps a temporary one.

The grouping of convinced pro-Europeans within the Conservative Party will back Kenneth Clarke, the ex-Chancellor. His campaigners believe he can win 35 per cent of the 165 voters; but several leftish MPs expect him to win no more than 40 votes. After putting down this marker most expected this support to switch to Mr Heseltine. There had even been discussions with Heseltine supporters about the point at which Mr Heseltine would have entered the race.

The right is, of course, more suspicious of the ex-deputy prime minister who caused the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Yet Mr Heseltine had made overtures, most notably through his authorship of the cartoon depicting Mr Blair on the knee of Chancellor Kohl.

But more important was the "stop-gap" factor - the desire by some for a leader who would not stay too long, but long enough for Michael Portillo to return to the Commons.

Instead the ideological fight will be joined immediately - and the main beneficiary may be William Hague, 36. He is poised to declare his candidature this week and present himself as the Conservative answer to New Labour and its youthful leader.

He will face competition from Michael Howard, who is ready to rule out a single European currency, and Peter Lilley, who tells today's Mail on Sunday: "I believe I am the best placed to reunite, rebuild and renew the party."

The left has fewer candidates, with Stephen Dorrell shifting to the right on Europe. If Mr Heseltine bows out of politics altogether, he might bequeath his seat to Chris Patten, but this would almost certainly not be in time. Mr Heseltine's illness may help deliver the one thing he wanted most to stop - victory to the heirs of Margaret Thatcher.