Tories and their soft spot for blonds: Stephen Castle sees the faithful fall for Heseltine's charms

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IT HAD been dubbed the 'beauty contest' - the appearance of John Major and his two most prominent challengers - and, from early in the morning, Kenneth Clarke was playing down his prospects of carrying away the crown. 'I have,' confessed the Chancellor modestly, but truthfully, 'never been noted for the beauty of my turn- out'.

His caution proved well- founded. The Conservatives have a weakness for blondes with strong personalities, and so it proved yesterday. The other contestant was Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, making his first party conference speech since his heart attack last July.

Conservative Central Council has not always been kind to Mr Heseltine; it was at this event in 1991 that the party faithful repaid his treachery in deposing Margaret Thatcher by sitting on their hands.

Yesterday, 800 activists made up for it in Plymouth, giving Mr Heseltine an enthusiastic reception and a minute-long standing ovation. 'My task,' said Mr Heseltine, 'is to talk about our companies and the men and women who work for them.'

His speech then ranged from Lloyd George to Tony Benn, from Hamlet to the proliferation of TV channels, and from the European Union to the Russian revolution.

Warming his audience up with a side-swipe at the press, he argued that 'today in government, facing the winds, braving the storms, it is the Tories who take real decisions about real issues in real circumstances'. Hitting at the Liberal Democrats, the party of opposition in the South-west, he said that Hamlet would be more decisive than Paddy Ashdown and his deputy leader, Alan Beith. Complete with theatrical gestures, he delivered the punchline: 'To Beith or not to Beith.'

But this was also a speech of substance, with strong support for Europe, which he naturally claimed put him at one with Mr Major. 'I share the vision of that generation of post- war Europeans that we should create a partnership that serves all our self-interest, designed to prevent the devastation of war characteristic of European history . . . I want to see our Prime Minister at the heart of the dialogue and ahead of events. We have to battle for our vision - the British vision of how Europe should compete in the world. And how Britain - in Europe - can win from the process.'

There was also a hint of Heseltine the radical, as against, perhaps, the staid consolidator currently occupying Number 10. 'We know the arguments against change. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

'The need to consolidate is a familiar cry. It speaks of comfort, of balmy days, of punts drifting in late summer along the backwaters of university cities . . . But it will not do. Markets are worldwide. Investment is planned on just that scale. Information flows are conducted instantly. The financial markets never sleep as computer hands over to computer in different time zones.

'Change is not an option. We will either change fast enough to keep ahead or keep abreast. Or change will be forced on us - in lost jobs and lower living standards - by nations who have seized from us that most intoxicating of Tory battlecries, 'Change is our ally.' '

It was expertly pitched, not too blatant to over-fuel the leadership issue, but good enough to get them on their feet, applauding even as he read out a succession of statistics on industrial subsidies.

The Chancellor, never a gifted platform speaker, was a given a polite, 45-second ovation, not bad considering he is about to levy a tax rise on everyone in the hall. But for him it was definitely third prize.

Then on to Mr Major, who hit back with a joke. He had, he said, been at Number 10 one day, 'when the party chairman staggered in with a suitcase full of donations. Norma was polishing her necklace. Naturally I was shredding some documents. It was just another normal day at Downing Street.'

But he also paid tribute to Mr Heseltine, saying that it was good to see him 'back in his old fighting mode'.

The Prime Minister won a four-minute ovation; but he did have one advantage over the President: the traditional party conference climax of the National Anthem and Land of Hope and Glory. Not even Miss World gets that.

(Photograph omitted)