John Major offered Michael Heseltine the post of Deputy Prime Minister three weeks before he called this summer's Conservative leadership election, Mr Heseltine reveals in an interview today.
Mr Heseltine dismisses as a "Machiavellian interpretation'' the idea that the offer was part of a deal in which he would stay out of the contest and encourage his own supporters to back Mr Major.
Asked why he was so firm with his supporters, Mr Heseltine says: "I do not believe in deceit. If I say to John Major's face I am not going to be involved in this process, I am not the sort of person who then goes round the House of Commons saying, 'well, I may have said this to the Prime Minister but don't take a blind bit of notice'.''
Mr Heseltine's interview, in today's Times, sheds light on one of the political puzzles of the year: why left-wing and centrist Tory MPs did not organise a mass abstention in order to force a second ballot in which Mr Heseltine stood a chance of beating right-wingers John Redwood and Michael Portillo.
Although it was known that Mr Major had discussed Mr Heseltine's role with the then President of the Board of Trade before he stunned his party in June by calling the leadership election, Mr Heseltine discloses that they had two conversations in that time in which titles were discussed.
Of the first meeting, in May, he says: "In the substance of it all, the ideal that I might play a more central role in government did come up. There was no agreement. It came up as a thought to be discussed. It was left on the table, so to speak.''
Today's revelations will do nothing to harm Mr Heseltine's stature in the Government, and will confirm that, although he shows unflinching loyalty to Mr Major, he is in a powerful position in relation to the post of Prime Minister. He accepts that being Deputy Prime Minister is likely to be his last ministerial appointment, but again leaves open the possibility of further advancement.
Mr Heseltine emphasises the importance to the Government of his relationship with Mr Major: "If I was advising the Prime Minister as to whether to create a deputy I would say unless you have a very good personal relationship and you have absolute trust, don't do it. Otherwise, you will be prised apart by the pressures of politics and the scrutiny of the media.
"There is no way that will happen with us. If there was any doubt about that, my position would be gravely weakened and probably fatally damaged. I am sure the Prime Minister must have thought of that. It is a great compliment to me that he came to the decision he did."
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