Heseltine may suddenly be accident-prone, but don't write him off

The Deputy Prime Minister has ensured he still has power, write Paul Routledge and Stephen Castle
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The Independent Online
IT BEGAN when Michael Heseltine attacked Tony Blair as the "villain's friend". Then, the Deputy Prime Minister committed a second gaffe when he told a Conservative Party dinner that, as a businessman, he had strung his creditors along.

Last week the extent of Cabinet opposition to Mr Heseltine became clear. A leaked letter from Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, expressed "grave doubts" about "immense-ly controversial" Heseltine plans to disenfranchise nine million workers of employment rights. Simultaneously Mr Heseltine has angered Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, over plans to bring private finance into schools and road-building in a "capital challenge" scheme.

Has Mr Heseltine lost his touch, or are jealous colleagues ganging up to block his growing power in the government? As Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State, Mr Heseltine chairs four Cabinet committees, sits on a further nine, has a Cabinet minister as a deputy and stands in for John Major in the Commons.

Heseltine allies argue that tension with Cabinet colleagues results from the growing power of the Deputy Prime Minister's empire. One argued: "Michael has transcended the Geoffrey Howe syndrome of powerlessness. He's like Willie Whitelaw but stronger on policy. There is now a proper Deputy Prime Minister's office with infrastructure and influence". Mr Heseltine's friends are fond of citing Mrs Thatcher's unfortunately-worded praise of her first deputy prime minister, Lord Whitelaw - that every premier needs a "Willie".

Unlike Lord Whitelaw, Mr Heseltine's main priority appears to be presentation of policy. Mr Heseltine chairs EDCP (the Cabinet committee on the co-ordination and presentation of policy) which meets daily most of the year and includes ministers, officials and Central Office invitees. It is, as one Heseltine ally put it, the "big daddy" of the committees. The Deputy Prime Minister takes a detailed, day-to-day interest in the news media, analysing news bulletins and identifying damaging stories which could have been foreseen.

But there is growing evidence of carelessness. A recent letter to John Prescott from the Deputy Prime Minister's office was faxed from Conservative Central Office breaching the convention that party and government are separate entities. Mr Prescott asked him tartly: "Is Central Office now running a postal service for the Cabinet Office? Or does Central Office keep a stock of Cabinet Office notepaper?"

Critics point to a catalogue of errors such as his well-publicised late payment of creditors gaffe. His Commons performances at question time against John Prescott have included some verbal slips, although last week's appearance pleased Tory troops. Earlier this year he let slip the unemployment figures on the day before they were released. He blundered over interest rates and he upset Scottish voters by comparing devolutionists with Nazi appeasers, referring to "the English parliament".

Last week's decision by the Prime Minister to distance himself from Mr Heseltine over the employment rights initiative revealed the limits of the Deputy Prime Minister's power. One former minister said: "Heseltine has no real power. As soon as I saw that story, I knew Major wouldn't allow it to happen. What are the politics of it? You please a limited number of small-businessmen, and upset nine million people!"

It is a testament to his tenacity that Mr Heseltine cannot be written off at the age of 62. He has told party workers in his Henley constituency that he intends to fight the next election. And one friend of Mr Heseltine baulked last week at the suggestion that Chris Patten might be the centre- left's candidate to succeed Mr Major after the next election. "My view," he said, "is that Michael would still stand. Bob Dole, after all, is 72. And if he didn't go for it, Michael would certainly want to be king-maker".