Heseltine intervention may help Mates survive

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THE POSITION of Michael Mates as a Northern Ireland minister hung in the balance yesterday, according to Tory MPs returning from their Whitsun break to discuss the latest twists in the Asil Nadir saga, writes Colin Brown.

However, Michael Heseltine's intervention swung the balance in his favour, and may be enough to protect Mr Mates from the sack over the disclosure that Mr Mates made a gift of a watch to Mr Nadir bearing the message: 'Don't let the buggers get you down' shortly before Mr Nadir left the country.

'It's 50-50 at the moment,' according to one former ministerial colleague. 'He's been very silly. But that's all. The fact that Paddy Mayhew (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and former Attorney General) brought him into the Northern Ireland Office is a sign of the all-clear.' A prominent Tory chairman of a select committee said: 'Michael is well-known for his sense of humour. But he has made plenty of enemies. He might be made a scapegoat for the Government's problems. It depends how things go this week.'

Mr Mates, 59, was Mr Heseltine's campaign manager for the leadership contest that forced Margaret Thatcher out of office. Before her downfall, he also led the Tory backbench revolt in a vain attempt to link the poll tax to the ability to pay.

A bluff, sometimes brusque former lieutenant-colonel in the Guards, Mr Mates won respect as chairman of the cross-party Commons select committee on defence before being brought into the Government for the first time by John Major after the general election.