Political Commentary: The dead rabbit that did for Dr Heseltine

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The Independent Online
THE MOST interesting news of last week was that, after graduating from Oxford, Mr Michael Heseltine embarked on a medical career. He confided this to Miss Megan Tresidder in the Sunday Telegraph: 'It was dissecting rabbits that finished me off. I could handle the dog-fish, but not the rabbits.'

Mr Heseltine had left the university with, to most of his friends' surprise, a respectable degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His life had largely been taken up with social and political activities. Though formerly it had not been unknown for, say, classical scholars to go on to study medicine, by the mid-1950s it was exceptional for medical schools to admit anyone who did not possess scientific qualifications of some description.

The whole episode remains mysterious. His closest friends did not know of this interlude in his life. It finds no place in the standard work on the subject, Critchley's Life of Heseltine. There is, admittedly, a hint in that section of the book entitled 'Heseltine: the Early Years'. It refers to the period when he and his business partner purchased a hotel off the Bayswater Road: 'A bevy of medical students, some of whom were friends of Michael's, were hired for as much drink as they could carry to repaint the chocolate corridors and dingy cream public rooms of the hotel overnight.'

Presumably the students were not simply friends but fellow-aspirants in the bold, even foolhardy medical school which had accepted young Michael for admission. We do not know. Mr Critchley does not tell us. Nor can I do any better. I can, however, shed light on Mr Heseltine's period of national service.

Having failed his accountancy examinations - something about which he has always been commendably frank - conscription could be postponed no longer. He joined the Welsh Guards, a most curious regiment founded in 1915 because David Lloyd George (shortly to become Prime Minister) was keen to exploit the military enthusiasm then existing in the Principality. It has always possessed an attraction for philosophers, homosexuals, queer fish of one sort or another. Welshmen have tended to give the regiment a wide berth. But Mr Heseltine, having been brought up in Swansea, was as much entitled to join as anybody.

His military career did not last long. He became prospective Conservative candidate for the safe Labour seat of Gower in the 1959 election. Under the rules for all service candidates, he was automatically discharged.

By 1962 the rules had become better known. Over 600 national servicemen requested nomination papers as candidates at two impending by-elections. The practice of granting discharges in these circumstances was suspended, and a select committee of the Commons appointed to examine the problem. On its recommendation, a special advisory committee appointed by the Home Secretary was set up to judge the bona fides of hopeful candidates seeking their discharge from the services. Only one such candidate was recommended for release. Having been discharged, he announced that he had, after all, decided not to stand. The committee still, I believe, exists somewhere in Whitehall or Queen Anne's Gate.

It was Mr Heseltine's first footnote in constitutional history. Afterwards he would wear his dark red-and-blue Brigade tie almost as often as Harold Macmillan used to wear his. It was in frequent evidence when he was at Defence. Mr Critchley once asked a Grenadier general whether he objected to Mr Heseltine's wearing it. 'Not in the least,' he replied, 'but I wish the chap wouldn't always tie it in a Windsor knot.'

If Mr Heseltine is squeamish about dissecting rabbits, he is not frightened of dogs. Indeed, he once killed a dog with his bare hands. The precise details remain elusive: but it appears that the creature had gone berserk. Saying 'Leave this to me,' or words to the same effect, he shepherded his guests from the scene. When they were given the signal to return, they found Mr Heseltine and a dead dog.

No such luxuriance of anecdote surrounds Mr Kenneth Clarke. He is undoubtedly a fine fellow. He is popular with journalists partly because we like to think of him as one of ourselves. He is negligent in his dress. What Evelyn Waugh wrote of Mr Pinfold (in other words, of himself) might equally well be said of Mr Clarke: 'By the narrow standards of the age his habits of life were self-indulgent and his utterances lacked prudence.' This was why we liked him so much. He did not - does not - appear to give a damn.

There was a time, only a few months ago, when the backbenchers seemed to share these sentiments. No longer. Partly it is because of the realisation that he is a member of the Kenneth Club, the other principal member being Mr Baker. The first rule of this body is that 'members shall attain the maximum amount of credit from the shortest period of office'. The second rule is that they 'shall leave a mess for their successor to sort out'.

Then again, the tax increases do not look nearly so clever this Easter Sunday as they did last autumn. Here Mr Norman Lamont has shown himself to be a member of the Kenneth Club too, though that cannot be much consolation to Mr Clarke today.

But, most of all, what impressed many as an attractive insouciance is now seen - partly accurately, partly through the prism of Westminster politics - as a brash indolence. While it is one thing to confess to never having read the Maastricht Treaty, it is quite another to neglect to read the documents on which a public interest immunity certificate is to be issued. Mr Heseltine did read his, though he has always experienced difficulties in reading anything, which makes his endeavours all the more laudable.

The sharp rise in Heseltine shares began with his evidence to Lord Justice Scott's inquiry or, rather, with the press's response to it. The Daily Mail was particularly fulsome. Last week, in the same paper, Mr Geoffrey Wheatcroft was comparing him to Winston Churchill awaiting his hour in 1940. Oddly enough, Churchill conformed to the great rule of the Conservative succession: that the candidate who is most expected to succeed never does. In 1940 it was Lord Halifax. The only exception I can think of since 1940 is Anthony Eden in 1955.

The election does not have to be held till May 1997. The party would prefer to go in spring or autumn 1996. November 1995 may be slightly too late to change prime ministers. It may be now or never. If Mr John Major, whom I have thus far succeeded in not mentioning at all, departs in November 1994, he will have been Prime Minister for longer than AJ Balfour, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, A Bonar Law, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath and James Callaghan. Not even the ineffable Sir Marcus Fox will be able to claim that Mr Major has not had a fair chance.