Wake up, it's the Heseltine show

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The Independent Online
LEONINE is the word which used to be applied to Michael Heseltine in his golden youth. He has moved on to his silver period now. The mane is grizzled, and the cheeks are lined, but the face is still fierce. On the platform of the conference hall, as he waited to speak on Thursday night at the London Business School, his glare shifted restlessly from side to side like that of a beast in captivity. The ambition for the highest office that has raged within him since the age of 18 still lives, and may yet be freed. He sat there in the knowledge that since his performance at the Scott inquiry, the possibility of his premiership is once more being spoken of. Yet, when he rose to speak there was nothing of triumph in Heseltine's bearing. He looked strained and, beneath the tan, tired. He has, perhaps, been here too often before. The school had chosen, for his Stockton Lecture to them, the subject 'Obstacles to World Prosperity'. Mr Heseltine was not too keen on the title. 'Obstacles,' he said, 'are there to be overcome.'

'As a young undergraduate,' he said a little later, 'I was much impressed by what I was told about the Theory of Knowledge. You can't know the future. But you can believe in it.' And no one has believed in himself more firmly than Michael Heseltine.

'Why is he coming here?' a student asked before he began to speak. Why, indeed. For the obstacle race has cost Mr Heseltine much time and anxiety. The strain of that race almost certainly brought about his heart attack. At his estate in Thenford in Northamptonshire that very day the sun was shining on Mr Heseltine's well kept acres, on the mellow brick of his beautiful mansion and the thatch of his cottages. The crocuses are out in his grounds and drifts of snowdrops spread beneath the trees. Why not relax and enjoy the fruits of his millions? At Thenford Heseltine is highly regarded. There are no cruel jokes there about Tarzan and his brashness, the streak of vulgar glitter amongst the gold. He is said to be liked by his employees. The ancient cottages are being restored, and he is trying to do it carefully, even if he has run into trouble with the planning authorities with his love of double glazing. He is seen as a good landlord. One of his tenants described him as 'marvellous'. And unlike John Major, he has been known to visit his local pub outside election times. 'He looks after his workers. He paid their poll tax. He lets people get on with their jobs. I knew people who worked for him who were Labour supporters, and they still wouldn't hear a word against him.' said Mr Lay, leaning on the bar of the New Inn in the nearest village of Middleton Cheney. 'They say he's a great guy.' And yet, with all this, Heseltine still batters his head against the brick wall of his ambition. Here he was, wasting another fine evening, reading the same dreary speech, written for him, by the sound of it, by some governmental computer. He stumbled over some of the words, looking drained, his inability to say 'r' very pronouced, talking of how figures had twebled, of desiwable ends. There were only two surprises, one, when the old Europhile began to talk of the disease of 'Euro-sclerosis' in a blatant attempt to ingratiate himself with his party's Euro-sceptical right- wing and, second, when he referred, in passing, to coal as a vital industry. Despite these highlights, a man in the third row fell asleep. Then Heseltine sat down and took questions from the invited audience of businessmen and academics, and a new, refreshed, even energetic man suddenly emerged. Reading has never been the strong point of this President of the Board of Trade. Dyslexia has even been mentioned. But without a script Heseltine talks with impressive fluency, such that the man in the third row woke up.

He must know how much more authoritative, more distinguished, he sounds in this mode than the Prime Minister. At times he sounded completely sincere. Here, after all, was a man who has made millions in the market place from an initial inheritance of pounds 1,000, a man fellow businessmen can respect. He glided over past embarrassments. The coal industry, for example, which once seemed to have shut his prospects down. 'It's a tragedy,' he said. 'But the tragedy is not just the fact that we've had to face up to economic consequences, but that 30 years ago we didn't face up to those consequences. There would be a greater coal industry than we are now going to have.' The recession was dealt with as airily. 'We're the whipping boys for the recession,' he said. 'We're the easy target. It's a yo-yo. Economic cycles go up and down.' People blamed the ERM, but then, look at Japan's troubles. You couldn't blame the ERM for those.

For all the authoritative tone, the charm, the acres, this last little speech somehow lacked conviction. He knew it. Practical politics have always been Heseltine's strongest suit. 'When I get up and my colleagues get up and say we're doing our best . . . how many people in the back streets of Bootle say - 'he's absolutely right, you know]'?' he said. A gust of laughter from the audience. 'The shoulders are broad and the back is there to be beaten and the only good thing is that the good times are coming.' More laughter.

Mr Heseltine had relaxed so much he seemed to be thinking aloud. 'But,' he said, 'they won't give us the credit for it.' Then he caught himself, and added: 'Well, they might, actually.' His mouth twitched. So close to the end of his long race the obstacles are such that even Mr Heseltine's optimism, I think, has faltered.

(Photograph omitted)