Portillo in running for party chair chaiman hot tip for party chairman

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JOHN MAJOR is coming under mounting pressure from Tory backbenchers to plan a wide-ranging reconstruction of his government which would put one of the Cabinet's biggest hitters at Conservative Central Office.

MPs who returned to their constituencies at the weekend to find Labour in control of local councils are privately urging the Prime Minister to ditch "failed" Cabinet members. But there was no immediate sign of a challenge to Mr Major's premiership, with senior right-wing-ers keeping a low profile in the wake of the local election rout.

Although Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, is still seen as the most likely successor should Mr Major go, one backbencher who campaigned for Mr Heseltine in 1990, Sir Patrick Cormack, said publicly that a change of leader would be "the final nail in the party's coffin".

The timing of the reshuffle is uncertain. Some ministers expect quick changes but there is speculation that it could be put back until the autumn if the Scott report on the arms-to-Iraq affair - which could end ministerial careers - is delayed again. But Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, who faces possible defeat in the Commons this week over the closure of London hospitals, is top of the back-benchers' list of "preferred" dismissals.

The case for moving Jeremy Hanley, who has privately admitted being unhappy after being less than a year in his post as Conservative Party chairman, is also being strongly advanced.

Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, and MrHeseltine are favourites to succeed Mr Hanley. Other candidates include Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, and David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

"Making Portillo party chairman would be a good way of muzzling him," said one minister. "The only thing the chairman has to be is loyal to his leader."

The claims of Mr Heseltine were advanced by a member of the influential executive of the Conservative 1922 back-benchers' committee, who argued: "The country would support Hezza in the chair. The country would love him."

Mr Heseltine, who is this week on a trade mission to China, has already turned down the "poisoned chalice" of the chairmanship once before, and is unlikely to look kindly on it at this parlous stage in the party's political fortunes.

But a senior backbencher added: "Hanley has been an utter unmitigated disaster. Heseltine should be made party chairman. Even if he declined it before, he should do it to help. There are moments so serious for us all that duty calls."

Mr Hanley would be "much happier" at the Department of National Heritage, said a close associate. The incumbent at National Heritage, Stephen Dorrell, could go back to Health (where he was once junior minister) as Secretary of State in succession to Mrs Bottomley. Assuming she stays in the Cabinet, Mrs Bottomley might then take on Employment should Mr Portillo accept the party chairmanship in the critical period up to the general election.

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