The President has such a way with words

Jonathan Aitken is, of course, a marvellous minister. And Michael Heseltine a brilliant verbal operator
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Michael Heseltine is hurt. He has put on his much-misunderstood face. Naughty people are stirring up trouble. It is all the fault of journalists. Such, at least, is the word from all the President's men, who were circulating Westminster yesterday denying that the President had murdered his dear friend and colleague Jonathan Aitken.

The President of the Board of Trade had certainly, even his own people agreed, given the Chief Secretary to the Treasury a horrid time. By assiduously digging out all the dirt about what the Government suspected about arms sales to Iran, he has revived the questions about Mr Aitken's knowledge of the affair. This story, which had started to die down, is up and yapping again.

Oi! Reader! Do not go away. Do not let your eyes drift back rightwards to Miles Kington. I am not about to investigate the intricacies of end- user certification, or who knew what at which meeting of BMARC, or even the misbehaviour of Miss Trixie Polenta, the DTI filing clerk. No, here we stick single-mindedly to the political trivia of what it all means for the Cabinet.

By last night, Heseltine had not only washed a deal of Whitehall's dirty linen in the House of Commons. He had, it seemed to all observers, been somewhat parsimonious in his praise for Mr Aitken. Asked on Tuesday to denounce the filthy Labour smears and innuendo directed at his fellow minister, Hezza merely noted that he had made a statement to the House.

Then, on the BBC Today programme yesterday, he said Aitken "had to answer his own questions.'' Asked about whether ministers should step down to avoid embarrassment to the Government, the President reminded the nation of Neil Hamilton, who did resign - though Hezza went on to explain why the cases were different.

Now, admittedly, there were supportive words, too. There was nothing so strong against Aitken that it made one gasp. But we have become used to Mr Heseltine's early-morning jousts with the BBC. We expected that the very idea that his colleague might go to produce a bark of contempt - "There you go, you bloody people, stirring up trouble - utter nonsense - Jonathan's a marvellous minister - will be with us for a long time to come''.

It wasn't quite like that. It was all just a little lukewarm and disengaged; the President was nearly supportive enough. This led to hacks and Tory MPs asking one another in the lobbies what Hezza was up to. He is such a brilliant verbal operator that every nuance is believed to have meaning. And the general view was that Heseltine had destroyed Aitken's chances of political recovery - that he was doing him in.

We hadn't quite seen the stroke. But the President is like one of those mythical Germanic swordsmen who can take off a man's head so neatly that the victim doesn't realise he's been decapitated until he tries to look round, and it falls off. Mr Aitken, it should be noted, was walking rather stiffly yesterday, and feeling his collar. We shall see. But for the time being, it would be a public service not to run up behind him, shouting "boo''.

All this has to be seen in context. The context is Tory hopelessness, lightened only by moments of hysteria. The situation was compared by one thoughtful backbencher to that of a company about to be made bankrupt, in which the employees and directors had given up hope and turned to ordering their own affairs.

John Major's decision to allow the anti-Maastricht Tories to interrogate him already looks like a serious mistake. He was not treated with much respect, and the "I gave it to 'im straight'' crowd are crowing about it round the lobbies. Prime Ministers can't afford such loss of face.

As with Mr Heseltine's almost-supportiveness towards Mr Aitken, one cannot quite put one's finger on the further shift against the Prime Minister, except to assert that it is happening. Though I remain of the view that the ousting of Major would be a mistake for the party, this seems increasingly an outsider's opinion.

Michael Heseltine remains the most plausible alternative to Mr Major, though he is now seen as someone who might stop a rout rather than someone who could win. His actions over the arms-to-Iran story, just as over the Matrix-Churchill prosecution, emphasise the cleanliness of his hands, and the comparative sureness of his political instincts. He wasn't around at the time. He's about the only minister who wasn't.

Here, though, is where the gossip gets convoluted. Would it really benefit him wittingly to destroy Mr Aitken just now? The events of this week have reminded some Tories of Heseltine's sinuous behaviour as he stalked Margaret Thatcher. He may feel that his words today are unfairly over-analysed. But that's why. Meanwhile, if he is to have any chance of reuniting and inspiring the party, he badly needs the right-wing, whom Aitken partly represents.

Some MPs with particularly intricate minds reply: but that is the point. Heseltine must do a deal with Michael Portillo, the real leader of the right. Portillo and Aitken are rivals. Harming Aitken helps Portillo, and so helps Heseltine, too. I record this conspiracy theory as a flash of light entertainment in a cheerless June, but don't really believe it. It goes, surely, one twist too far.

So what is going on? Mr Heseltine is being cautious. He is not plotting against Major, still less striking deals with other colleagues. He remains coiled, and watchful, but sees no profit (and much danger) in striking early. About Jonathan Aitken, he doesn't much care one way or the other. The President walks alone, and always has. If there is mucky stuff in the files of his own department, it is better and safer to tell the Commons everything. Colleagues can take care of themselves - or if they can't, they've had it anyway.

This is not cosy. But the job of leading the Conservatives into the next election wouldn't be a soft or cosy one, either. The President probably feels he wasn't quite as fulsome about the Chief Secretary as he ought to have been and is being maliciously teased about it; hence the fact that his people are going about being nicer in private about Aitken. Again, this is a matter of prudence.

Such tough, wary, unsentimental behaviour does not disgust your average Conservative backbencher. Indeed, it is rather admired. It is the kind of thing that leads Tories from all parts of the party to assert baldly that Heseltine will be Prime Minister by Christmas.

Thus far, the big card in Major's otherwise weak hand was the damage that a proper leadership contest would do to the already fissured and fragmented Tory party (that should almost be Tory parties). But colleagues are no longer so sure that Kenneth Clarke would stand against Heseltine; there may be deals to be done on the left, as on the right.

It is a desperate, white-knuckle game, which can bring undiluted joy only to cynical lobby correspondents like myself. And until it is played to the final card, I fear poor Mr Heseltine will carry on being hurt.