TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Heseltine supporters face tactical dilemma

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Michael Heseltine has made it clear to his supporters that he does not want them campaigning before the second ballot, but to back John Major in the first round. A poll showing that Mr Heseltine as leader would save more Tory seats at the general election increased the dilemma for Heseltine supporters over how to vote in next Tuesday's ballot.

Many are expected to abstain, to force a second ballot and bring Mr Heseltine into the contest. But some said they would have to do some "soul searching" over the weekend.

A number said they would back Mr Major. Sir Peter Tapsell, a supporter of Mr Heseltine in the 1990 leadership election, publicly pledged to support Mr Major in the Commons. He was one of those subjected to the charm offensive by the Prime Minister with a private meeting with Mr Major.

The decision by some Heseltine supporters to vote for Mr Major raised suspicions in the corridors at Westminster that the Heseltine camp no longer believes he can win the leadership and that they fear letting John Redwood through to seize the crown, as Margaret Thatcher did in 1975.

"The 1992 intake was very Thatcherite. Things have changed since 1990," a senior backbencher said. A close ministerial colleague of the President of the Board of Trade said: "Hezza has not changed his ministerial diary. There really is no campaigning going on."

Mr Heseltine has kept out of the gossiping lobbies at the Commons and yesterday relaxed on a motor launch at the Henley Regatta in his constituency. Michael Mates, his main recruiting sergeant, is in the United States with the Select Committee on the Security and Intelligence Service. A minister said: "Twelve months ago, he had the feeling something was going to happen. But now I don't believe he thinks the time is right."

One minister said that he would face a dilemma this weekend, making up his mind what to do on Tuesday, adding: "It's really all about who can save the biggest number of Tory seats at the general election. I am in a real quandary over what to do."

"You can't believe anything anyone is saying privately at the moment. Almost everyone is lying," said another minister who was planning to vote for Mr Major.

One Heseltine supporter said: "They can say we are going to vote for Major, but we know how the ballot works. We all know that to bring Michael in, we have to abstain.''

Forcing a second ballot would bring in Michael Portillo against Mr Redwood. Majorite candidates who would throw their hats in the ring if Mr Major dropped out might include Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, and Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, who is helping to run Mr Major's campaign.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, fears his chances of winning have been damaged by the rise of the right wing.