Heseltine enhances his appeal to the Conservative right: Donald Macintyre decodes the rhetoric of the man who has refuelled Tory leadership rumours

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IF MICHAEL HESELTINE is trying to send friendly signals out to the Conservative right wing, it is ironic that he should have chosen his 'Stockton Lecture' on Thursday to do so. For the lecture was given in honour of Harold Macmillan, one of the heroes of the one-nation Tories, an architect, in his own way, of the corporate state terminally disavowed by free-market Tories, and a scourge of Baroness Thatcher in that wonderful Indian summer of his career in the Lords.

But then Michael Heseltine, who, willingly or not, reignited speculation that he is still a potential candidate for the party leadership that cruelly eluded him in November 1990, has never been that easy to cast within the left- right spectrum of modern Toryism. He was never a 'wet' Tory in the political sense any more than in any other. He was a passionate advocate of selling council houses; he was always in favour of privatisation. He did not join the patrician Tory left - represented by Ian Gilmour and Jim Prior - in their grumbles with Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. And he was not - unlike Kenneth Clarke - part of the self-consciously left wing of the party even during the Heath period.

For all the speculation about leadership bids, Mr Heseltine went out of his way to praise John Major in his Stockton Lecture. Moreover his message also contained some of the humane elements normally associated with the Heseltine philosophy. It was a hymn to free enterprise, all right. But he also argued, for example, that British firms should devise Japanese-style practices to ensure that workforces are kept intact during bad times.

None of this should disguise, however, the fact that Mr Heseltine has, if not shifted right, at least exposed his right flank with rather more enthusiasm of late. First he dismayed libertarians and liberals alike by voting to keep the gay age of consent at 21. And then there were the teasingly Euro-sceptic references on Thursday. Mr Heseltine devoted part of his wilderness years to writing a book devoted to the proposition that Britain should learn to 'win' in Europe rather than trying to fight every move towards closer integration. On Thursday night he attacked the single market as 'over-regulated, over-protected and over-centralised. We now have Eurosclerosis'.

There was a great dream of Europe, he seemed to be saying, born of the vision that European unity would prevent another world war. Now it has become bogged down in an overweight bureaucracy.

Michael Heseltine was one of the most passionate advocates until Black Wednesday of staying in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was, he argued, the only way to eliminate inflation. Yet here in his lecture, there is a reference to exchange rates which will be soft music in the ears of the anti-ERM fusiliers of the Tory party: 'The foreign exchange markets now have an increasing say about governments' economic policies . . . The markets have shown they now have the power to override the exchange rate targets of governments whenever they believe financing difficulties are critical enough'.

Mr Heseltine is much too skilful a politician to be unable to argue that there is no real inconsistency between these views and those he expressed as the most dangerous backbencher since Winston Churchill between 1986 and 1990. Moreover, he believes there is a role for government in helping industry - as he would put it - 'to make markets work'.

Nevertheless the rhetoric is interesting. Put it this way. If there was a leadership crisis, those right-wingers who wanted to support Mr Heseltine because they thought he was still the man most likely to win the election but doubted his ideological firmness, will find it just that little bit easier to do so as a result of the last couple of weeks.

Sandra Barwick, page 11