The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: A splendid holiday weekend chez Michael

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The Independent Online
Thenford House, Oxfordshire

FOR yonks, Easter chez Heseltine had been one of the surest treats in the Arnold calendar. Michael is a splendid host who makes quite sure that only the best of his china and silver is employed for serving the latest in the excellent Fray Bentos range of luxury family-size oven- ready meals to his excessively well- pampered guests.

As is well-known, I was not strictly a 'Heseltine Man' during the tragic leadership election, though I always maintained a great respect for his energy and political ambition. Looking back on the articles I wrote at the time - 'The smarmy rat we must keep out of No 10' (Daily Mail, 19 November 1990) 'Never trust this hollow man Heseltine' (London Evening Standard, 20 November 1990) - I note with fascination that, while John Major was marginally my preferred choice ('Major's our man', Sunday Express, 21 November 1990), I always had time for Michael.

And now my initial doubts about John Major, expressed so forcefully in my instant biography of the man, John Major: Quiet Visionary by Wallace Arnold (Weidenfeld, 1991), reprinted in January 1994 under the new title, John Major: Dead Loss, have been more widely acknowledged by the country as a whole, one's attention inevitably turns to Heseltine as his natural successor.

'One May Judge a Man by His Dinner Table' has long been a prime aphorism in the Arnold canon, and on this basis I am happy to report that Michael passes the Prime Ministerial test with flying colours. Of course, Heseltine is a modest, easygoing fellow, infinitely more interested in the cultivation of his splendid garden and arboretum than in any overweening political ambition. Yesterday morning, it was my delight to join him in planting a new range of blue and gold roses to a very strict pattern that he had personally designed with great concentration on a sheet of paper the night before. In the splendid spring sun, the two of us supervised a 10-strong troop of unemployed miners in planting over 7,000 separate bulbs.

'You know, Wallace,' exclaimed Michael when the task was completed, 'this garden makes me feel a million miles from Westminster, allowing me to shake off all the petty ambitions and plottings of the political life.' He then invited me to view the newly planted rose garden from an upstairs window. 'Just look at that, Wallace - quite beautiful and so restful, isn't it?' he gasped, pointing to the way in which, viewed from above, the 7,000 roses, all twinkling in the sunlight, delightfully spelt out the message: 'Heseltine for Prime Minister Hip Hip Hip Hooray.'

We sat down to Saturday luncheon bursting with rude health, and Michael made it absolutely clear to me that he was not in the game of going behind the Prime Minister's back. 'I cannot foresee any circumstances in which I would stand against the Prime Minister,' he reassured me, 'other than in the unlikely event of his surname beginning with an 'M' and ending with

an 'R'.

'What people don't understand about me, Wallace,' he continued, 'is that I am a man of remarkably few ambitions. Yes, of course I would like to be Prime Minister by Christmas - who wouldn't? - but that is literally the only ambition I have, so why on earth do people go on and on as if I have so many?'

Realising that this column has the power to sway not only the country at large but also vast numbers of ordinary, decent backbench Tories, Michael then sought to reassure me, in his singularly resolute way, of the unshakeable firmness of his political beliefs. 'Yes, I believe in a strong Europe,' he said, 'but I also believe in a strong Britain.'

He sliced at the Walls Viennetta with strong, masculine strokes of his silver knife. 'Finally, I offer my total and unqualified support to John Major, and feel convinced in my own mind that, in years to come, he will prove himself an absolutely first-rate deputy chairman of the 1992 Committee.'

As we tucked into the Elizabeth Shaw After Dinner mints, Michael told me of the loyalty he feels for all his cabinet colleagues, not only the Prime Minister. 'I sometimes worry about poor Ken Clarke. He looks so terribly overweight,' he said. 'Any chance of a heart attack before October, d'you think?'