He had a rotten day yesterday. His weekend pronouncements about the irreversibility of the closure decision were rudely upended by a panicky Cabinet. Solely to get through tomorrow's vote, it decided to delay the closures. This was aimed squarely at the half-hearted, might-be rebels on the Tory back benches. It did not save a single job. It was rightly described as a reprieve, which my dictionary defines as 'a formal temporary suspension of the execution of a sentence, esp. a death sentence'.
It was welcome, nevertheless. Although Mr Heseltine explained (with reckless candour) that the moratorium will be used to 'set out the full case for the closures which British Coal planned and to which I agreed', the hunt is now on to turn the Cabinet's proposed months-long public relations exercise into a proper review of national energy policy.
Can that be achieved? Much depends on whether the Tory backbench rebels are more interested in puffing out their tummies in front of television cameras, or in achieving something. If it is the latter, they will have to learn how to keep the pressure on Mr Heseltine, week after week, month after month. Because they will be arguing for a sort of intervention, albeit in a rigged and distorted market, they will need him.
Some are honest enough to recognise it. But others are merely embittered Thatcherites who want to kill off the political reputation of her assassin. Watching Mr Heseltine struggling through his parliamentary statement yesterday were some of the Baroness's oldest admirers, grinning savagely from the galleries and the back benches. They had been waiting two years for this.
There is, though, a much more serious political game being played. Influential members of the Cabinet have been briefing against Mr Heseltine, leaking their 'shock' and 'anger' at the appalling way he presented the closure plan. After John Major's meeting with the 1922 Committee executive it was being said (significant fingers tapping wine-red noses) that the Prime Minister had said nothing 'supportive' of Mr Heseltine. The message of the emergency Cabinet meeting and the public devouring of his own words by the President seemed to confirm the same story: a blundering and arrogant man had caused a PR disaster, which his long-suffering colleagues had now ordered to be cleared up.
Just a moment. Let us recall: the miners are to lose their jobs because of the way the electricity industry was privatised, not because of the way Mr Heseltine handled the announcement. That was what outraged people, particularly when they learnt they might have to pay higher electricity bills as a result. Or perhaps thousands of people marched through Cheltenham because they felt the Government was bad at presentation? Perhaps they only seemed to be angry about the closures? Perhaps, all the time, they were really upset about poor-quality PR?
It would be hugely convenient for the Prime Minister if Mr Heseltine were to take all the blame for what has happened. Not only (yet again) could the responsibility be shifted away from the inner core, to a natural loner, divided from the rest by age and inclination. Better still, it could be shifted on to a minister whose very reputation as a doer, an interventionist and a man of action represents a threat to this drifting administration. Nothing could be more useful than to demolish Mr Heseltine's reputation just at this moment. A former colleague of Mr Major's once disparaged Mr Heseltine as being 'rather too much the thwack of crop upon leather'. Now, that is what this government needs.
Not that Mr Heseltine is likely to succeed Mr Major. As he used to say when pressed to challenge Lady Thatcher, 'there is no vacancy'. Nor is there likely to be. The ragged irregulars from the Tory back benches have no one remotely fitted to challenge the Prime Minister, however weakened he seems. The rest of the alternative Tory government is in the Lords or in retirement. Mr Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, the two obvious alternative leaders, are in the Cabinet, without the inclination or the supporters for a coup. And Labour is four years away from a serious challenge.
We have all been brought up to hope for moral endings. A government loses its policy - collapses in authority - and goes. Life is not always so neatly arranged. This is still a political crisis, when unexpected and dramatic events may cascade down at any time. But the most likely outcome is still in some ways the dreariest one: that Mr Major's administration will simply hobble wearily on.
Hobbling on would mean a degradation of political authority, an erosion of the basic assumptions about competence and respect that the system depends on. To avoid it, the Government needs to start facing squarely its own errors and re-examining its own basic assumptions. Mr Heseltine should stay not because he deserves to but because ditching him would be an easy, slick, convenient and generally shabby way of avoiding painful truths.Reuse content