PROFILE; Maybe this time he'll be the bride

Michael Heseltine is centre-stage once more, glowing with health and ambition, says Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online
Sir Julian Critchley - knighted yesterday at long last - has changed his mind. In a new and elegiac last chapter of his entertaining biography of Michael Heseltine, last year Critchley came reluctantly to the conclusion that his hero had had it. He had proved "too big for his party and his times" and he had somehow left behind his "Field Marshal's baton" in Long John's Restaurant in Oxford. There, as an undergraduate in 1952, Heseltine had scribbled his future CV down on the back of an envelope, decade by decade, ending in a two-word entry for the Nineties: Downing Street.

Yet this week Critchley recanted. "Is Michael Heseltine destined to be always the bridesmaid, never the blushing bride?" he asked the readers of the Times. "I hear wedding bells." Heseltine, he reported, had regained not only his "health but his ambition".

Critchley's unapologetic U-turn is significant. For he has known his man since they were both at prep school and Critchley sold the future Cabinet star a model ship for what Heseltine would later complain was "an exorbitant price".

Critchley was writing on Thursday morning after yet another bravura Heseltine Commons performance, one all the more thrilling for being unexpected. The President of the Board of Trade had just announced an inquiry into whether BMARC, an arms supplier of which Jonathan Aitken was a director, had broken the Eighties' embargo on arms sales to Iran.

Of course Heseltine, like all absolutely front-rank politicians, is able to turn a threat into an opportunity. After all, he was not around at the time, so he can be fearless in exposing the DTI weaknesses of the late Eighties. And for some of his colleagues it looks menacingly like a dress rehearsal for the Scott report. Heseltine is the one Cabinet member likely to emerge with credit from the affair because he questioned the Public Interest Immunity Certificate he was asked to sign before the Matrix Churchill trial - and he just happens to be the minister responsible for presenting the report to the Commons.

It was said of Margaret Thatcher that she was a politician who made her own luck. And there is a sense in which this is true of Heseltine. When he stormed out of the Cabinet over Westland in January 1986, the next item of business was the poll tax. His hands were therefore clean on the one issue which provided him with a casus belli against the Prime Minister four years later. By an almost equally striking coincidence, Mr Heseltine was on his feet on Tuesday at the very moment that John Major was being subjected to the un-prime ministerial mauling from the fifth- form bullies of the Tory Party's Euro-sceptic wing that has launched the latest wave of leadership speculation.

The two safe bets are that Heseltine, nothing if not supremely self-disciplined, will not this time be the assassin, and second, that he will assume that the prize is his.

He came within 24 hours of Downing Street. If Margaret Thatcher had carried out her threat on that extraordinary Wednesday afternoon to "fight to win", he would surely have won in the second ballot. Yet in 1987, as he began his long march back to power, he had remarked prophetically to a journalist that political rivalry was like a middle-distance race - the man ahead at the last bend seldom reaches the finishing line first.

Yet nothing better illustrates his relative personal authority than the matter of the party chairmanship. All the logic points to John Major confronting a deeply reluctant Heseltine with the unpalatable choice of taking the party chairmanship or having it be known that he refused to do his duty by the party in its hour of direst need. The latest version of this optimistic scenario is that he should combine the party office with chairmanship of all the key committees, a sort of de facto first minister. But there are few MPs who expect it to happen. Heseltine shows every sign of genuinely seeing his task of restoring primacy to British industry at the DTI as the only grown-up alternative to the premiership. So the consequences of his refusal to move are too awful for Major to contemplate.

And anyway the moment for that may have passed. It's true that some on the fundamentalist right still cannot forgive him for 1990 and fear that the instinctively pro-European Heseltine would reassert himself in office. Others claim to hope that he might be prepared in a leadership campaign to rule out a single currency in the next Parliament, resorting to the argument that it would be better to join the EMU in the "second wave" if at all. But there is another group which scarcely cares any more. Recognising that Heseltine as a leader would frighten the Tory party back into loyalty, and panicked by the implications for their own seats of the council elections, this group would subordinate ideology to simple electoral arithmetic: at best a victory, at worst a narrower defeat.

And in any case, for all Heseltine's appeal to the left, he was was never a real "wet". Was he not an architect of council house sales? Did he not argue during the explosive Cabinet debate on economic policy in 1981 that the Thatcherite drive against waste was going far too slowly? Some on the left, all too understandably fearful of Heseltine's wild streak - the mace-swinging in 1978, Westland, the misjudgement over coal - would prefer Kenneth Clarke (who once remarked, sardonically, that a Heseltine government would be an "interesting ride").

Last week, at a meeting in Edwina Currie's constituency, Heseltine dazzled an audience of party faithful with a 25-minute speech. The first question, from a hard-nosed Derbyshire businessman was "How's your health, Michael?" Utterly unfazed, Heseltine replied that it was fine, that his doctor had advised him to go back to work after his heart attack, and here he was. Afterwards, according to a first-hand account of the occasion, an appreciative little buzz went around the room.

There is a long way to go before a change in leadership; a stalking horse - perhaps Norman Lamont, perhaps another - first must fatally wound Major. But once again, there is a chance that the final prediction on that Long John envelope may not be as vain as Critchley feared last year.