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Poisoned chalice with sweeteners

WHILE Michael Portillo continues to be touted in some quarters as the next Conservative Party chairman, Michael Heseltine remains a dark horse, I'm told, despite his private assertion that he does not want to be considered for the job.

When he indicates this unwillingness to move to Central Office, the President of the Board of Trade is not going through his 'I cannot envisage a situation where a contest might arise' routine, so often trotted out in his wilderness years. He genuinely does not want to run the party machine, and genuinely does want to stay on at the Department of Trade and Industry for a further three years (although he still hankers after another job, No 10 itself, and he hasn't ruled this out, despite his heart attack).

However, John Major has not given up hope of persuading him to take over from Sir Norman Fowler in the summer. If Mr Major's own position continues to improve, so ruling out a leadership contest next autumn, Mr Heseltine, I'm told, could be lured to Central Office with the promise that he would play a crucial role in the run-up to the general election.

He would have a prominent role in the drafting of the manifesto, would sit on all cabinet committees, appear on television in a way he has not done since the leadership contest (and the pit-closures debacle) and, to pacify his wife, Anne, who is naturally worried about his health, would appoint his own vice-chairman, who would do most of his running and carrying. Michael Portillo, for whom the job would be a poisoned chalice, would be happy, too.

AFTER his Booker Prize success in 1989 with The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro has become hot property - and he is about to become hotter. Although the book is now an acclaimed film and Ishiguro has written two television scripts, he had not actually ventured into cinema himself. That omission, however, is being remedied with a screenplay he has completed (in great secrecy) for a film developed by Shelly Bancroft, called The Saddest Music in the World.

Misty eye on Ball THE Prime Minister's new year lunch party at Chequers has not, in the past, been an occasion for misty eyes and emotional reminiscences; this year's event, however, proved an exception, when the newly knighted Sir Bob Scott, leader of Manchester's campaign to hold the Olympics, laid eyes upon the West End singer Michael Ball, star of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Aspects of Love.

Scott had not seen Ball since 1985, since when the singer's career has soared (climaxing in the biggest ego-trip of all: singing solo, without an orchestra, in front of 80,000 rugby fans at Twickenham at the start of the World Cup). 'It was I who gave him his first job when he was a complete unknown,' Scott tells me. 'I gave him the lead part of Frederick in Manchester Opera House's production of The Pirates of Penzance. Since then, of course, he has not looked back.'

RUMOURS reach me from North America about the fate of the Princess of Wales, who recently declared in public that she wished to bow out of the limelight. According to a group of American celebrities based in Los Angeles, however, she is planning to adopt a new public persona in about six months' time, when she becomes head of the International Red Cross. Whether there is any truth in the rumours remains to be seen - the British Red Cross, of which she is vice-president, seems to think it unlikely. 'It is only a rumour,' a spokesman said. My American friends are insistent, however. We shall see.

Back to Mammon WHEN Richard Gere went missing in Tibet after flying out to see the Dalai Lama before Christmas, the Daily Mail became very excited, and devoted much space to the mystery. The next day, Gere's agent popped up to explain that his client was safe and well but, because of an important engagement, would be leaving before his audience with the spiritual leader. I can now reveal the nature of the engagement: he will today be opening the Harrods sale.


5 January 1899 Arnold Bennett writes in his journal: 'You can find a certain wide romance even in the January Sales at the draper's shop. My mother bought some very large unbleached linen sheets today for our cottage at Milford. They cost 1s 11 1/2 d each, and are woven by Russian peasants by hand. They are sold to the French War Office, used during the annual military manoeuvres, and after the wear of a month or so, are sold by the French Government to English traders. So it comes that I may sleep between linen that has passed through the hands of the most miserable and unhappy people in Europe - Russian peasants and French conscripts.'