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Ambition that dare not speak its name

At 62, it is now or never if Michael Heseltine is ever to become Prime Minister. Stephen Castle reports
WHEN one of Michael Heseltine's closest backbench allies spotted the minister recently in the House of Commons, he stopped only for the briefest of chats. It was not, he later explained, sensible to be seen in public with the President of the Board of Trade since fellow MPs would assume wrongly that they were plotting.

In the current febrile climate, life is not easy for a man so widely assumed to have ambitions for No 10 Downing Street. He is not exactly shunning his colleagues and, for example, appeared at Tim Yeo's champagne birthday party before Easter. But he studiously avoided "working the room" which was full of Tory MPs and potential supporters.

In his media appearances, Mr Heseltine grows ever more loyalist and lavish in his praise of John Major. And, at a time when the Prime Minister's leadership looks increasingly vulnerable, Mr Heseltine will this week take himself off to China to sell widgets in Britain's largest- ever trade mission.

A casual observer might conclude that the President of the Board of Trade did not want Mr Major's job. The casual observer would, of course, be completely wrong.

Having assassinated one Prime Minister - a fact that the Conservative Party remembers only too well - Mr Heseltine knows that he cannot afford to be seen as anything but ultra-loyal. Until a vacancy exists no challenge can be mounted from inside the Cabinet. All he can do is wait, and see if the leadership is delivered to him on a plate.

What are the chances? This year may well present Mr Heseltine with his last opportunity. He is 62, which is, as his fans point out, younger than either Sir Winston Churchill or Harold Macmillan when they became Prime Minister. Nevertheless Mr Heseltine is not in a position to wait until the next election is lost, serve as Leader of the Opposition and return five years later. It must be soon or never.

He has also had a heart attack, although his recovery has been good and his friends describe him as "fit as a fiddle". Again this need not be a barrier. When he was recovering in hospital, one well-wisher sent the President of the Board of Trade a note reminding him that Lyndon Johnson had a heart attack 10 years before becoming President of the United States.

It is a paradox that the minister's age and medical history does not greatly disadvantage him in a party which might be reluctant to elect a young leader likely to stay in place a long time.

His greater problem is ideological. Mr Major's chief trouble-makers have been on the right of the party. They know that Mr Heseltine's instincts are more pro-European than Mr Major's.

True, the President of the Board of Trade has trimmed. Last year, for example, one of his speeches described Brussels as an "over-protected, over-centralised community suffering from Eurosclerosis", and he took a tough line against the extension of Qualified Majority Voting.

Mr Heseltine opposed the lowering of the age of consent for gay men from 21. He has also proved one of the Cabinet's keenest privatisers, pushing hard for the sale of the Post Office and falling in line with the proposed sale of the nuclear industry (about which he had doubts). This is some way from his book Where There's a Will, a plea for interventionist economic policy.

As one ally put it: "He's a supple enough person to trim. He is a pragmatist and a pretty experienced one, too. He entered Parliament in 1966 and has seen the likes of Harold Wilson and George Brown. He's been at Westminster twice as long as most members of the Cabinet."

Yet in most respects the Heseltine credo has not changed. His actions at the Department of Trade and Industry have not been as dramatic as his backbench recipe suggested. But he has fashioned smaller-scale, pragmatic but useful, support for British industry.

One supporter says that on Europe, he is "still convinced that the only way for us to proceed is by staying a full-blooded member of the Community". If a Heseltine premiership were to come about, most MPs believe, an accommodation would have to be reached with a leading right-winger, probably Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment.

Nor has his unwillingness to cultivate the Commons tea room changed. Mr Heseltine is not the clubbable type. One friend says: "There is an almost relentless seriousness about him which people construe as ambition." Another adds: "I've been at a party at his home where he showed no enjoyment at being the host. He was a complete social lemon. He tends to appear out of the clouds and then disappear back into the clouds."

But it is neither his policies nor his personality but his campaigning skills that comprise the Heseltine appeal. Despite setbacks - for example, over coal - he looks, in the words of one Tory MP, "like a winner".

How much good he would do the Conservative Party is a more difficult question to answer. A recent poll showed that a Heseltine premiership would only be a marginal help to the Conservatives, but experts are not so sure. Nick Moon, director of research at NOP, argues: "I would not place too much credence on those polls. A change would make a number of people think, 'Perhaps I'll give them a try'." Another pollster believes a Heseltine honeymoon would be worth 15 points in the polls.

Even that, however, would only halve the Tories' deficit, and would force a Heseltine leadership to play the general election long. There would probably be an 18-month premiership which would encompass the ideologically sensitive European Inter-Governmental Conference. Moreover, deposing a second Prime Minister might be seen by the electorate as a highly cynical manoeuvre.

There would, then, be risks involved in changing the leader which Tory MPs would have to balance against their desperation. One said, last week, that "the earnest wish of the majority of Tory MPs is that Mr Major would ride off into the sunset, that we could pronounce him a great Prime Minister and then forget all about him. That is what they want, but how to deliver it is another matter."

Crucial to Mr Heseltine's prospects will be a group of MPs who had considered their seats safe, but are now peering over the abyss. Most have given up their old careers and have few prospects of landing plum City jobs. Their priority is their survival as MPs - in opposition if necessary. One ex-minister said last week: "No one is necessarily suggesting that he's going to win the election, but if he saves 50 seats, it's worth it for 50 people to back him. It's about voting for your job."

The decision rests with those MPs rather than with Mr Heseltine. In the meantime he will battle away at Trade and Industry, backing British business with uncontroversial initiatives such as his updated competitiveness White Paper.

With Douglas Hurd set to stay at the Foreign Office, Mr Heseltine is not looking for a departmental reshuffle. As one friend put it: "He says that Trade and Industry is the only department he wants to serve in and I think that is probably true - given, of course, that technically the Prime Minister's Office is not a government department."