Heseltine tightens his grip on Cabinet

Deputy Prime Minister a power player in shake-up of policy committees
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Political Editor

The full extent of Michael Heseltine's grip on Whitehall's levers of power as Deputy Prime Minister was revealed yesterday after a streamlining of the Cabinet committee system ordered by John Major.

Four committees previously chaired by David Hunt, the former Public Services minister, were summarily abolished - casting doubt on their previous importance as free-standing committees - and subsumed into a new economics, domestic policy and competitiveness committee chaired by Mr Heseltine. A previous committee on science, chaired by Mr Major, is also merged with it.

Mr Heseltine simultaneously takes over the committee charged with the "co-ordination and presentation of Government policy", the committee on local government, and the committee on the environment. He also gets a place on virtually all the main Cabinet committees.

But the Cabinet committees list, published yesterday, also underlines the continuing, sometimes under-rated, importance in the Whitehall machine of Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons. Downing Street revealed yesterday that the new committee structure had been agreed at a meeting between Mr Major, Mr Heseltine and Mr Newton.

Mr Newton retains his chairmanship of the Cabinet home affairs committee - which covers most aspects of non-economic domestic policy - and for the first time is included as a recipient of Cabinet papers from the eight-member defence and overseas policy (OPD) committee .

In a series of subtle changes to the Whitehall pecking order which will be greeted with some relief on the Tory right, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, becomes a member of OPD.

Mr Howard and Ian Lang, another prominent campaigner for Mr Major in the recent leadership contest, are the two new members of that committee. Mr Lang also joins the powerful economic and domestic policy (expenditure) group, ED(X).

Tory party Kremlinologists will also note that Lord Cranborne, another right-winger, who ran Mr Major's leadership campaign, has been put on the influential European committee OPD(E) which is drawing up policy for the 1996 Inter- Governmental Conference on the future of the EU.

But that is partly offset by the fact that a broadly pro- European left-winger,William Waldegrave, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, retains his post on that committee. His predecessor as Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken, did not have a seat on the European committee.

The main interest for Whitehall in the new structure is how far Mr Heseltine's ubiquitous presence within it will enable him to force the pace for policies he favours, against opposition from individual departments.

As a veteran Whitehall infighter, Mr Heseltine, who is on as many key committees as Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is said by friends to be planning to ensure that the relevant departmental ministers take credit for specific policy announcements, even if Mr Heseltine is their architect. That is seen as an essential quid pro quo among Heseltine allies for being able to tread far and wide on departmental toes.

The terms of reference for the new economic and domestic policy and competitiveness committee - known as ED(C) - are "to consider issues affecting the UK's competitiveness and other industrial, commercial, consumer competition and regeneration policies; policy on science and technology; the pace of deregulation; and the handling of public sector pay".

In another largely administrative change, a sub-committee dealing with Hong Kong has been subsumed into the parent OPD committee.

Under the new structure, Mr Newton chairs six committees, the Prime Minister five, Mr Heseltine four, and Mr Clarke, one. Downing Street said Mr Major had been keen to rationalise the existing system.

of committees.