Mr Clean clears a path to Number 10

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The Independent Online
AMONG the get-well messages sent by colleagues to Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, as he recovered from his heart attack last year, one stood out: 'I thought it might speed your recovery if I reminded you that Lyndon Johnson had a heart attack 10 years before becoming President of the United States.'

Even at the nadir of his political fortunes, those who know Mr Heseltine never counted him out of the race for Number 10. Last week the President of the Board of Trade proved why.

His performance at the Scott inquiry, where he described his initial refusal to take part in a 'cover-up' over the arms-to-Iraq affair by signing an immunity certificate, had the hallmarks of a master politician. It had been trailed in advance, in the previous week's Spectator, the journal of the Thatcherite right of the Conservative Party. It hit the headlines with that Conservative barometer, the Daily Mail, proclaiming the following day: 'Mr Clean Back in the Running'.

It even made great pictures - quite an achievement for a contribution to a judicial session closed to the cameras. Mr Heseltine, looking fit and well, ushered his wife into the building with the mixture of gallantry and panache usually demonstrated by veteran Hollywood idols. He looked, according to one Tory, 'as if he had been called as a distant character witness for a sleazy administration'; to another, 'as a man of destiny, who walks alone and tells the truth'.

If anything, the performance was a little too successful, provoking speculation about his ambitions and some backbench sniping. By openly criticising the advice given by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, he left a Cabinet colleague looking highly exposed.

Critics argued that it brought out the traditional reservations about Mr Heseltine, 'that he is not a team player and that he is interested primarily in how he looks'.

Speculation was fuelled by intriguing evidence that the President of the Board of Trade, long a champion of the party's centre-left, was making overtures to the right. He had, pundits pointed out, voted against the lowering from 21 of the homosexual age of consent. Then a speech last Thursday tempered his long-standing enthusiasm for Europe by attacking an 'over-protected, over- centralised community suffering from Eurosclerosis'.

There is more high-profile Heseltine to come. At the end of this month he goes to Plymouth for the Conservative Central Council - his first address to party activists since his heart attack. Meanwhile he is planning a wide-ranging document on competitiveness, billed by one well-informed enthusiast as a successor to 'Back to Basics'. He has tried to cut down on speaking engagements but, according to one of those close to him, 'the diary is filling up'. And he is even said to be pressing for a policy dearly beloved by the right, the privatisation of the Post Office.

Is this not, as one Tory MP suggested last week, little short of a leadership bid? That is a trifle premature, although it would be fair to see the week's events as part of an elaborate pattern of jockeying, with the leadership not the only prize. Mr Heseltine has made no secret that he is unlikely to turn down promotion. Should Douglas Hurd step down as Foreign Secretary, Mr Heseltine would like to take his place.

One of the effects of last week was to prove to the public and MPs that Mr Heseltine is back in good health. He lost four or five months of politics and some weight through his illness but, at 60, tells friends that his doctors pronounced his arteries as good as those of a man 20 years younger.

On a political level, last week effected a subtle change in the relative stakes of Mr Heseltine and the front-runner of the left, the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke. Mr Clarke is the main obstacle to Mr Heseltine should the Prime Minister step down - or be forced out. Some of those close to Mr Heseltine believe that Mr Clarke's strength within the Parliamentary party would deter the President of the Board of Trade from even standing in a leadership contest. The centre-left, they say, would not risk splitting in case that allowed the right to come through the middle. Thus a Heseltine candidature would risk humiliation at the hands of Mr Clarke.

That could all change, however, if Mr Clarke's tax-raising budget is seen to be part of the reason for an electoral meltdown in May and June. Mr Heseltine's performance in front of Lord Justice Scott pointed up the obvious comparison between Mr Clarke, who signed a Public Interest Immunity Certificate, and Mr Heseltine, who initially refused.

It may be that this is more than accidental. When, in January, Mr Clarke was pressed into announcing that he would resign if Scott judged that he was at fault, it took Mr Heseltine less than a day to go further, promising that 'if I thought that anything I had done had brought unacceptable embarrassment to the Government, I would resign.' The Chancellor had been locked into his pledge.

Most MPs believe that John Major will survive this year. But there is still an outside chance of an acute leadership crisis taking place at a time when Mr Clarke has been damaged - through the Scott report and the impact of his tax rises. Some of those who supported Douglas Hurd in 1990 - he is thought unwilling to risk a second defeat - might opt for Heseltine rather than Clarke.

In this situation the support of the right of the party could be pivotal, since their obvious candidates are Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is seen as too young, and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who is viewed by some right-wingers with suspicion. In 1990 Mr Heseltine won the support of several of their number - including populist politicians such as Edward Leigh, Dame Jill Knight, and Michael Brown - who judged that he provided the best prospect of election victory. He had, after all, never been one of the patrician wets, and backed policies such as council house sales and privatisation.

Mr Heseltine has given them and their colleagues on the right an excuse to vote for him, should they decide in desperation to ditch Mr Major. Neither his comments on Europe nor his age-of-consent vote have cost Mr Heseltine politically, but both might be used at some future date by MPs to sell his qualities to nervous constituency activists.

All this is some way down the track, and should it come to the crunch, Mr Heseltine will have to do more hard work before he can rely on the support of the right. It was, after all, Lyndon Johnson who said: 'I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket.'

In the meantime, Britain's President looks a bigger figure than he did a week ago.

Clive Ponting, page 21

Alan Watkins, page 19

(Photograph omitted)