The prospect of Mr Heseltine's appointment to the chairmanship in succession to Sir Norman Fowler has been suddenly revived within senior Conservative circles as a possible trump card Mr Major could play, in the wake of the European elections, to revive the party's fortunes and shore up his own embattled leadership.
The latest blow to the Government - though one easily dwarfed by last week's calamitous local election results - was the weekend resignation of the junior whip Michael Brown over newspaper allegations about his sex life.
The push for a headline-making reshuffle was underlined yesterday when, amid further recriminations within the party over last week's defeats, one Major loyalist, David Mellor, the former Heritage Secretary, openly criticised Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, for his hostile remarks about a single currency in a television interview last weekend.
Mr Mellor said that Mr Portillo - the strongest contender from the Thatcherite right in the event of a leadership crisis - 'need not have gone on that television programme and made a mess of answering a straightforward question about Europe'.
Pressed by Sir David Frost on BBC television on the possibility of ministerial sackings, Mr Mellor added that he had 'some sympathy' for the 'Captain Byng' approach, adding: 'Sometimes people need to be shot on the quarter deck pour encourager les autres.'
Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, cautioned Mr Major against reshuffling 'in response to political controversy'. He said that he would advise the Prime Minister to keep his own counsel 'and to make one when he wants to make one'.
The appeal of a Heseltine party chairmanship to some of the right- wingers determined to stop Mr Heseltine becoming leader - a group which has Baronness Thatcher at its head - was underlined at the weekend by Lord Parkinson's public endorsement of the idea. He suggested that Mr Heseltine, backed by Lord Archer in a 'key role', would give the party a badly needed boost. But it is also gaining currency among some of those more closely advising Mr Major.
It has been widely assumed at Westminster that Mr Heseltine - whose popularity as the preferred alternative leader was again underlined yesterday by a Gallup poll for the BBC's On the Record - was in too powerful position to have the job forced on him, given his well-attested reluctance to take it.
But one highly placed Tory yesterday suggested that if Mr Heseltine issued the menacing threat of returning to the backbenches rather than accepting the post Mr Major could counter immediately by letting it be known that the President of the Board of Trade had refused a job regarded as vital to the party's performance in the general election. 'He'd be dead in the water,' said the source. 'If John has the courage to make it, it's an offer Michael couldn't refuse.'
Although traditionally regarded as a graveyard of leadership ambitions, on the grounds that it locks the incumbent too closely to the Prime Minister, the chairmanship would not rule Mr Heseltine out at a possible leader in the event of crisis. Besides repeatedly predicting that he expects Mr Major to lead the party to victory in the next general election, Mr Heseltine has also loyally declared that he would never challenge Mr Major for the leadership - a stance that goes significantly further than the 'cannot foresee the circumstances' he used about Lady Thatcher.Reuse content