TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Heseltine and Portillo put plans in place

THE OPPONENTS
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The Independent Online
Highly co-ordinated campaigns for Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo have been prepared to launch immediate leadership challenges if John Major emerges heavily wounded from the first ballot of the election.

Mr Heseltine's allies have examined Westminster residences that could be used as campaign headquarters and most of his 1990 team, plus some new blood, are "ready to spring into action when the whistle blows," one supporter said.

A similar operation was forecast by Portillo supporters, emboldened by reports that his strength could be greater than originally estimated, if the employment secretary should decide to try his hand.

The crucial first step of securing a "stalking horse" candidate appeared to be in sight last night amid heavy speculation that Norman Lamont, the former chancellor, had been persuaded to stand. That cut across a warning by Ron Gill, Mr Lamont's Kingston upon Thames constituency chairman, that it would be "wrong, in the sense of fatal" for him to do so. Mr Gill also warned that Mr Lamont, whose seat is disappearing under boundary changes, might not find another.

But after strong exhortations from Edward Leigh, the Thatcherite former minister sacked by Mr Major, Mr Lamont conspicuously failed to rule himself out and is expected to declare his hand on Monday. Mr Leigh insisted: "We have got to have a heavyweight, either a member or former member of the Cabinet ... ideally we want an open contest between John Major, Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo. If we can't have that on the first ballot, we mustn't have a Mickey Mouse candidate. We must have somebody who's sat round the top table."

If Mr Major was sufficiently damaged in the first round, trusty Heseltine lieutenants, Peter Temple-Morris, (Leominster) and Keith Hampson (Leeds North West) would play leading roles in the board of trade president's campaign. They could be expected to be joined by Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland minister who took on an ADC and number-crunching role in Mr Heseltine's 1990 challenge to Margaret Thatcher. Others are said to be ready to climb on, possibly including Edwina Currie.

If Mr Portillo decided to enter the fray, Thatcherite No Turning Back group MPs such as Mr Leigh and Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) would be likely to play leading parts. Other No Turning Backers like Barry Legg, Bernard Jenkin or John Whittingdale might also be persuaded to join.

One pro-Portillo MP, currently supporting Mr Major, said: "I do not believe Portillo can beat Heseltine." The MP warned, however, that Mr Major's support in the right-wing "anti-Heseltine" could evaporate if they thought Mr Portillo had a chance of winning.

Both camps will be watching Mr Portillo's progress carefully as the first round approaches. There will be MPs on the right and the left of the party who would be reluctant to vote for Mr Lamont as stalking horse in the first round, thus diminishing the chance of Mr Major being fatally wounded. But a belief that Mr Portillo was in with a chance could lead to a wave of additional abstentions among those who would otherwise have supported John Major in a bid to keep out Mr Heseltine. Much could depend on the determination of John Major - as indicated yesterday - to fight on in a second or subsequent ballot, which could see a potential Portillo challenge fade away.

As one MP said, it is a "highly fluid situation, which will constantly change."

There were copious warnings too about the propensity among MPs for downright lying, the possibility of some supporting John Major until the 11th hour before finally jumping ship, and the likelihood of a number supporting the candidate viewed as most likely to ensure that they kept their seats - said among many to be Mr Heseltine.

In the interim yesterday, talk concentrated on the initial prerequisite of getting a "stalking horse" out of the stable. It was clear yesterday that if Mr Lamont did not stand, Euro-rebel Teresa Gorman, one of the so-called Whipless MPs and one of those most desperate for a contest, might.

The impression she gave, however, was that Mr Major had succeeded in catching his most strident Euro-critics so wrong-footed they did not know what to do.

They will meet early next week to decide their strategy, but unlike the Major campaign, they do not have a headquarters.

It was suggested that her own Georgian house off Smith Square might do.

"That's a good idea," she smiled.

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