Government in Crisis: Tories see Heseltine's hopes of power fade: Friends and enemies of the trade minister believe his humbling was self-inflicted. Colin Brown reports

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HESELTINE was written off as a future leader of the Conservative Party yesterday by his friends and critics at Westminster. For the first time in his career, the President of the Board of Trade had appeared humbled before MPs.

As one of the most experienced politicians in the Cabinet, Mr Heseltine should have realised that the pit closures would cause a furore. The question being asked by backbenchers and ministerial colleagues was: 'Why did he walk into it?'

A government whip said: 'It was like overtaking a lorry and not seeing something coming in the other direction.'

His handling of the package to ease the pain of the closures was also mysteriously maladroit for a minister whose career had been built on spectacular presentation. The blond 'Tarzan' figure, given the task only a week ago of cutting through the jungle of Whitehall inertia, came a cropper.

'He's no longer the golden boy,' said one of the leaders of the 1922 committee.

Few at Westminster subscribed to the conspiracy theory that he was set up and ambushed by the Thatcherites still nursing resentment at his role in Lady Thatcher's downfall. 'It's the cock-up principle,' one of his supporters said. 'Nobody did it too him. He did it to himself.'

A Thatcherite said: 'He was too busy thinking about becoming the next leader and took his eye off the ball.'

The debacle over the closures also destroyed Mr Heseltine's reputation as an interventionist. His determination to take a 'hands off' approach to British Coal may have been part of his defence against the furore the closures would cause. But it contributed to the disaster which overtook the Government.

Michael Clark, one of the leading Tory opponents of the closures, accused him of reneging on his pledge at the party conference a fortnight ago to intervene to protect British industry.

'I will intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner . . . ,' the President of the Board of Trade said on 7 October, in a barnstorming speech to the Conservative conference in Brighton.

'Within days of making that speech, it has been shown his desire to help industry was words rather than action,' Mr Clark, the Tory MP for Rochford and former vice-chairman of the Tory backbench committee on energy, said.

'The events of this week undermine the speech and make us wonder if he is prepared to support any other aspect of British industry.'

Mr Heseltine's friends say that his commitment to intervention is misunderstood. 'He is not in favour of going back to the worn-out policy of supporting lame-duck industries,' one of his close colleagues said.

'He straddles both wings of the party. He is an interventionist, but not in the old-style sense, which would put him on the left.'

He reassured colleagues worried by his interventionist tendencies when he revived the title of President of the Board of Trade, that he did not intend to pick winners and losers.

Enjoying the nickname, 'Prezza Hezza', Mr Heseltine intended to use his political clout in the Cabinet to argue, if necessary against the Treasury, for a tax and exchange rate policy to help industry.

Mr Heseltine, 59, made a personal fortune out of his hard- headed approach to business by building up a flourishing publishing empire.

His writings, his high-profile adoption of Liverpool after the Toxteth riots, his stand on Westland which led to his resignation from the Thatcher Cabinet in 1986, and his opposition to Thatcherism, encouraged the belief that he represented a more caring sort of Conservatism and would intervene to save the pit closures.

Mr Heseltine said that he went through 'agonies' about the decision to close the pits. But the President of the Board of Trade showed little doubt that it was the right decision.

(Photograph omitted)