Dear voters, glad you're not here: They're all going on their summer holidays . . . Donald Macintyre watches the annual flight of Britain's leading politicians

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BY ANY standards Michael Heseltine is a driven politician. He has been accused of many things but laziness is not one of them. The President of the Board of Trade is also, however, a politician who takes holidays seriously.

He and his wife Anne are both restless in the search for places where the snorkelling and scuba- diving are first class and the chances of meeting a British voter, let alone another politician, are remote. This summer he has alighted on a remote corner of the western Pacific island of Fiji.

John Major did not tell his colleagues in the Cabinet that they should confine their holidays to two weeks, as was reported last month. But if he had, he would have received pretty short shrift, given that few have had a break since an exhausting election.

Luckily the Prime Minister actually believes in holidays, unlike his predecessor, who even without the cares of office to contend with has already managed to interrupt her break in Gstaad, Switzerland, to meet the Deputy Prime Minister of Bosnia, write a widely-syndicated article for the New York Times and give an interview to Cable News Network.

Mr Major will have his now regular 10-day stay in the estancia of Tristan Garel-Jones, the Foreign Office minister, 120 miles south of Madrid in Spain.

Mr Major can at least see the point of holidays, unlike Baroness Thatcher. She was taken to task last week by no less an ally than Sir Bernard Ingham, who wrote in the Daily Express that her 'concept of 365-day noses-to-the- grindstone politics was daft'. However Sir Bernard went on to attack criticism of Norman Lamont's planned trip to Tuscany as 'politically illiterate'. In fact, reports of the Chancellor's holiday have been somewhat exaggerated. He will spend only 10 days in Tuscany, dividing the rest of the month between No 11 and his grace-and-favour home at Dorneywood, Buckinghamshire, making regular trips to his office.

The signs are that for most politicians this year, Tuscany is out. Neil Kinnock, for example, who has been a regular visitor to the Palio, the spectacular medieval horse-race in Siena's main square, has opted for the United States, including a visit to the artist David Hockney in California. One reason is that after nine exhausting years as Labour leader he wants a real break; the other is that he was becoming an attraction for rubber-necking Brits.

France, on the other hand, is in. John Smith, new Labour leader, will divide his holiday between Scotland and France. Others going to France include Michael Howard, the Environment Secretary, who worried staff by muttering about installing a fax in his gite; Gillian Shephard, the Employment Secretary, a near-perfect French speaker; Jack Straw, Labour environment spokesman; David Mellor, the Heritage Secretary, photographed last week at Euro Disney; and Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, who will spend much of the month at his holiday home near Dieppe, but will also take a week on the Riviera.

Labour's environmental protection spokesman, Chris Smith, who is even more zealous than his party leader in conquering Munros - Scottish peaks over 3,000ft - is taking to the Alps for a fortnight. Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, one of the few ministers leaving Europe, will limber up for the public- spending round with 10 days in Barbados. David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, will also cross the Atlantic, for a fortnight in Canada.

Home Office officials refuse to give the destination of their Secretary of State, Kenneth Clarke, who is, like Mr Heseltine, a serious holidaymaker. But it is a fair bet that as a Hispanophile he will be returning to Spain, where he was tracked down by the Daily Mail in 1988 in the middle of a nurses' pay dispute, when he was the Health Secretary.

Iberia is certainly the destination of Gordon Brown, Labour spokesman on the economy, who has an almost Thatcherite distaste for long holidays but who will be attending his brother's wedding in the Algarve, southern Portugal. He will be back for this week's publication of the unemployment and inflation figures. Virginia Bottomley, the Health Secretary, will travel, as she has done since childhood, to the Isle of Wight.

Lastly, pity the Foreign Secretary. Douglas Hurd has long spent his summer holidays with the same close friends in Italy. Last August his holiday was interrupted by the Soviet coup, two years ago by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Now it is threatened again by the crisis in Yugoslavia. In international politics at least, August is a wicked month.

(Photographs and map omitted)