Profile: When gold fades into grey: Michael Heseltine, soldiering on at 60

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Sometimes he must wonder why he bothers to soldier on. Michael Heseltine, self-made millionaire and once the shamelessly self-promoting golden boy of Conservative Party conferences, will celebrate his 60th birthday next month with his prospects much diminished. What future is there for the ambitious, often flashy man who yearned to replace Margaret Thatcher but succeeded only in dragging her down?

Last autumn's pits crisis fed the perception of a tired and uncertain performer who had lost his political way. It was exacerbated because Heseltine has aged so suddenly. For the first time the tall, dynamic, matinee-idol minister looks vulnerable. The glamorous golden locks, now greying, flop over a face which is thinner and more lined than in his glory days.

It is hard to imagine this greying gent donning a flak jacket to posture before the ladies of Greenham Common, or waving the Mace above his head, supposedly to make a point about misbehaviour on the Labour benches. The snide, rather jealous nicknames - Goldilocks, Tarzan, Hezza - no longer seem even vaguely apposite.

Heseltine is now one of the oldest ministers in the Cabinet. He is 11 years - and a full political generation - older than the Prime Minister. The President of the Board of Trade simply isn't like the others in this Cabinet. His age, his substantial wealth, his grand style and his unclubbable nature set him apart.

There is, moreover, deep suspicion and distaste within Tory ranks for the man who precipitated the destruction of Margaret Thatcher. 'In our party the man who wields the dagger never picks up the crown,' a Tory elder statesman said this week. 'And there are a lot of us who remain determined that Michael will not be the exception which proves the rule.'

The anti-Heseltine coalition was - and remains - a formidable one. It embraces those who have long regarded him as an unstable short-term operator, as well as embittered Thatcherite loyalists, those who mistrust his advocacy of an activist industrial policy, and Euro-sceptics.

A few days before his birthday on 21 March, the President of the Board of Trade - typically, Heseltine chose to revive the flamboyant but historic title when he became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry - will have to go through hell in the Commons. His task will be to defend a White Paper explaining how he intends to sort out the humiliating mess his department made over pit closures last autumn. It will not be easy for a man who so misjudged the public mood that he commented, in an almost nonchalant manner, that the economic case for the mass closures was 'unanswerable'.

There followed an unprecedented eruption of fury embracing the Government's own supporters in Parliament and in the country. (The fact that the crisis enabled Thatcherites to bash Heseltine was an added incentive for some of the rebels.) It transpired that the Department of Trade and Industry - which has absorbed the old Department of Energy - did not have an obviously coherent and easily explicable energy policy. Finally the unions proved in the courts that the legal requirements concerning pit closures had been ignored by British Coal and Mr Heseltine's department.

'Michael simply took his eye off the ball,' according to a colleague. But this is not an excuse - it is an indictment. Sharp politicians simply do not take their eyes off the ball. The cost is too high.

One of the most difficult days for Mr Heseltine must have been Monday 19 October, when he attended an emergency cabinet meeting called to water down his initial closure plans. He left early to attend the memorial service for the Independent's political commentator, Peter Jenkins, whom he had known since childhood. At St Margaret's Church, Westminster, he himself pointed out the 'exquisite irony' in the moving words of John Donne that he quoted in his reading: 'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

After all, Heseltine's greatest strength in the past has been his instinctive feel for, and ability to play upon, the mood of his party - vide those rapturously received performances at annual conferences. Shortly before the pits crisis broke, the activist Secretary of State told a delighted Conservative conference how he would protect British industry. 'I'll intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner. And I'll get up next morning to start again.' Yet, within days he was back in the Commons defending the economic inevitability of large-scale closures with almost Thatcherite zeal.

There is a case to be made for Heseltine's handling of the coal crisis, but it is essentially defensive. It runs like this: he inherited the policy; and energy is only a small part of his remit. (Until last April, Energy was a separate department.) He spent many months intervening actively to fight coal's corner against a Treasury determined to cut corners on pit redundancy costs. This, it is said, is why the announcement of closures was delayed from early last summer.

'It wasn't that Michael took his eye off the ball,' says a friend, 'he was concentrating on the wrong ball. He was interested in what the coalfields would accept in terms of redundancy payments. He should have been thinking about what the party and the public would accept in terms of sackings and the seemingly inexorable decline in British industry.'

Eventually it took a direct appeal to the Prime Minister before Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was overruled and forced to accede to redundancy terms which were in fact very generous.

Even so, the package proved to be too little, too late. By October the political mood had deteriorated. Growing unemployment was finally generating anger and alarm.

Given the decline in his political fortunes, Heseltine must, in the course of this winter, have thought about stepping down. After all, his interests outside politics are wide and money is no object. He devotes great attention to the cultivation of his garden at his country seat, Thenford House, outside Banbury, Oxfordshire. 'It's grand stuff, not gardening the way you and I know it,' said a friend. 'He has created an artificial lake to encourage water birds and he is a great trees and shrubs man. Michael has always wanted his estate to look something special in a hundred years' time.' Colleagues recall Heseltine and his ideological arch- enemy, Nicholas Ridley, another gardener on the grand scale, bearing bundles of cuttings into Downing Street before cabinet meetings so that they could swap choice specimens while waiting in the ante-room.

Until the autumn of 1990, Heseltine had stayed in politics - albeit on the back benches after the Westland crisis - because he was unashamedly hungry for the prime ministership. Friends from Oxford claim that as an undergraduate he outlined to them his projected career, step by step, decade by decade, culminating in his arrival at 10 Downing Street.

If John Major were to step down unexpectedly tomorrow to make way for an older man, that man would almost certainly be either Douglas Hurd, a safe pair of hands, or Kenneth Clarke, who has inherited something of Heseltine's mantle as a populist crowd- pleaser. If not, there would be pressure to skip a generation and go for a youngster such as Michael Portillo.

According to friends and colleagues, Mr Heseltine has rather surprisingly come to terms with this prospect. He is, they say, a more mellow, laid-back sort of fellow than he was when he marched out of Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet in 1986 during the Westland helicopter crisis.

His years in the wilderness were remarkable for his patience and forbearance. For reasons of party loyalty (some say), or in his own cause, he never spoke against her - until he declared his candidacy. He had his revenge when he precipitated her resignation. But Heseltine does not want to be remembered as an ambitious and opportunistic politician whose ministerial record does not really amount to much and whose greatest hour came when he dragged down the most towering prime minister since Churchill.

'You may find it hard to believe, but he is no longer driven by ambition to be top dog,' said one friend. 'He is interested in his reputation in the history books.'

Heseltine was genuinely shocked by the demoralisation and lack of direction he found when he arrived at Trade and Industry. He wants to leave a revived industrial base and a confident, reformed DTI as his monuments. He has told the Prime Minister that he hopes to stay at Trade and Industry long enough to achieve these goals.

When Heseltine first announced to a group of senior officials that he wished to use the title President of the Board of Trade, he was asked whether he had thought about the signal this would send to industrialists. Would they not feel the Secretary of State was downgrading their efforts in favour of those whose job it was to buy and sell? Just the opposite, he replied, crossly. In the 19th century, the Board of Trade was one of the great offices of state. The change was a sign that the DTI was moving centre-stage, after the Thatcher-Tebbit-Ridley era when it was taken as axiomatic that the department really ought not to exist.

The change of title carried a further message to industrialists. It was outdated, damaging and corporatist for them to think in terms of industry - production - as an end in itself. Industrialists had to see themselves as traders, dealing in the market-place. This was the best way of ensuring that they survived and prospered. Heseltine affirmed that the manufacturing base that remained was 'bloody good' - but there was just not enough of it. The task of his department was to encourage a manufacturing renaissance.

Heseltine's tragedy, as his friends see it, is that the whole of point of being Michael was to be prime minister. Despite his protestations, other, lesser, projects are not what he was made for.