Heseltine quits with a parting snub to Hague

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Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister and leading pro-European Tory, signalled the end of his flamboyant political career yesterday when he announced he would step down from Parliament at the next general election.

Mr Heseltine, 67, ended months of speculation about his future when he declared that he would not seek re-election as the Conservative candidate for the seat of Henley.

The former cabinet minister said he was resigned to never again serving in a Tory government and did not want to remain as backbench "lobby fodder" in the House of Commons. In a typically colourful flourish, Mr Heseltine said "when a man's got to go, he's got to go," and made clear that he would continue to promote the pro-European cause.

He also delivered a parting snub to William Hague by announcing his decision on BBC Radio 4's Today programme instead of following the normal convention of informing the Tory leader in person.

Mr Heseltine said he had told the chairman of his constituency association at Henley, Oxfordshire, of his decision on Wednesday and was worried that if he told Conservative Central Office, the news might leak out. Ever since Mr Hague's election as leader in 1997, Mr Heseltine has been uncomfortable over the Eurosceptic drift of party policy.

He infuriated the Conservative leader by appearing, with the former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke, on a platform with Tony Blair for the launch of the Britain in Europe campaign.

He warned that his departure from Parliament did not mean he would be giving up his pursuit of the European cause. "I intend to play an active part in the overarching debate of our time, which is Europe and Britain's relationship with Europe," he said.

However, despite the differences between the two men, Mr Hague paid Mr Heseltine a generous tribute, describing him as an "immensely distinguished politician.

"We have had a disagreement over Europe, but we haven't had many other disagreements. We have had very good personal relations and we have not let the disagreement over one matter create bad relations," he said.

"He is a great character and we will miss him in the House of Commons, where he always makes a big contribution as a serious heavyweight politician.

"His achievements in the last government, as secretary of state for defence, in the regeneration of the Docklands, the work that he did on Merseyside, were the achievements of an extremely capable and talented minister."

Mr Heseltine, who first entered the Commons 34 years ago as MP for Tavistock, said there were several reasons for his departure, chiefly his chairmanship of Haymarket Publishing Group and his labour of love, the arboretum at his Oxfordshire home. "I'm really a rather active sort of person and I'm not given to being a sort of backbench guy waiting for the whips' instructions," he said. "I know that I will never serve in another Conservative government and I'm just not that good at sitting around."

Eurosceptics within Henley Conservative Association have been agitating for his removal as their MP for months, but Mr Heseltine stressed that their actions had not been an influence in his decision to resign. "There are people who disagree with me but the very strong impression is that if I expressed an interest in being reselected I would have been reselected," he said.

Mr Heseltine suffered a heart attack in Venice in June 1993, and a further heart-related illness immediately after the 1997 general election rout of the Tories. However, he said that his health had played no part in his decision.

Mr Heseltine's constituency chairman, Howard Green, said he felt "somewhat emotional" when Mr Heseltine told him of his intention. "He was an outstanding frontbench spokesman for over 30 years."

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