Bottomley sets sights on key committee: Colin Brown looks at likely runners for the role of Tory chairman

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VIRGINIA BOTTOMLEY is seeking a move from the Department of Health to an economic portfolio in the next Cabinet reshuffle, and is being tipped for the Department of the Environment to succeed John Gummer.

Mrs Bottomley, who has been at Health since 1989, as Minister of State and Secretary of State, is an outside bet for the chairmanship of the Conservative Party, in spite of one poll rating her as Britain's most 'insincere' politician.

Her colleagues say she wants a move which would put her on the key economic and domestic policy committee of the Cabinet (EDP) chaired by the Prime Minister. She was a junior Environment minister before moving to Health, where she has gained a reputation for 'safe hands'.

David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, is emerging from a wide field of candidates as the favourite to take over from Sir Norman Fowler as chairman of the party. 'He is a good presenter, with safe hands,' one Tory party source said.

Mr Hunt, a close ideological ally of Chris Patten, a former party chairman and now Governor of Hong Kong, is firmly on the left of the party and pro- European.

But he has been working hard to win over the anti- Maastricht right wing of the party. At Employment he has ostentatiously trimmed towards the 'Euro-sceptics', lambasting Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, in a speech to the annual party conference last year, and attacking 'socialist' European employment regulations - a theme of his section of the Tory manifesto for the European elections.

Of the other runners for the chairmanship of the party, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, was receiving late backing by his former enemies on the right wing.

Mr Heseltine has been courting right-wingers, many of whom are prepared to forgive him over the ousting of Baroness Thatcher. They now regard him as the best of the Cabinet big-hitters to pull back Labour's lead.

But Mr Heseltine, with an eye on the leadership, has effectively ruled himself out. Insiders doubt it would be the right job for him. 'It entails saying you are going to win every by-election, when you know you are going to lose. Hezza isn't very good at that sort of thing,' one MP said.

Lord Archer, a close friend of both John Major and Baroness Thatcher, is one of the few contenders desperately keen on winning the chairmanship.

However, Tory MPs regard the best-selling novelist as too lively for the top party job. 'He's so high-profile, it would be all Jeffrey and not much about the Tory party. That wouldn't be much good,' said one Tory MP. He may be given a special campaigning role.

Some of Mr Major's advisers believe it may be better to pluck someone from the mid- ranking ministers with a good television manner, such as Jeremy Hanley, the armed forces minister, who comes from a showbusiness family.

Eye-catching candidates who fell at the first fence include Nicholas Soames, the food minister, regarded as too amusing for explaining by- election defeats on Newsnight.

(Photograph omitted)