Tory Leadership Crisis: Steady support for the great survivor: Michael Heseltine's record makes him a likely contender. Patricia Wynn Davies looks back

Patricia Wynn Davies
Wednesday 30 March 1994 23:02

'I cannot forsee any circumstances in which I would stand against the Prime Minister,' said Michael Heseltine just weeks before he precipitated the demise of Margaret Thatcher in October 1990.

But beneath the furrowed brow that witnessed the Prime Minister's acute misery on Tuesday is something approaching the old Michael Heseltine, relishing being in not-quite pole position.

An MP since 1966, he once brandished the Commons' Mace in response to a Labour 'Red Flag' demonstration and ran the gauntlet of bobble-hatted CND protestors in a flak- jacket at Molesworth.

At the height of his hostility towards CND, which he judged a left-wing organisation, Greenham Common women daubed him with paint.

But the greatest moment of fame in a colourful career came 20 years later when his then obsessive pro-EEC stance prompted the dramatic walk- out from the Cabinet over Westland and out of the Government, humiliating Mrs Thatcher.

The conflict between the two, prompting Baroness Thatcher to say he would be leader over her dead body, began almost as soon as he achieved his first Cabinet appointment as environment secretary in 1979.

The 1981 report on Liverpool by the man who became 'Mr Merseyside' began: 'It took a riot (at Toxteth) to make the Cabinet take inner city problems seriously.' It was said to have so incensed Margaret Thatcher that she scrapped the entire study.

Conservative party faithful sat in silence at the 1981 party conference as he told them: 'We have to be very careful before we assume strengths and values in those deprived societies that are characteristic of a more vibrant and richer community elsewhere.

'There is one labour exchange in central Liverpool where 20,000 unemployed people are registered. Eight hundred youngsters applied to just one firm.'

After resigning as Secretary of State for Defence in 1986 he declared that public funds played a 'prime role' in reviving inner cities.

'I'll intervene (to help British industry) before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner, and I'd get up the next morning and I'll start all over again,' he told the October 1992 party conference after John Major had brought him back from the political wilderness to make him President of the Board of Trade, the job he had always coveted. The Rover sale proved to be a different story.

The surface caution of today's manoeuvring is well- judged. John Major is much further away than Mrs Thatcher from the prospect of what Mr Heseltine, when justifying reneging on his promise, said would be the 'ultimate calamity' of a Labour election victory. A lot, moreover, can happen between now and a leadership contest which - except in the as yet still unlikely scenario of a Major resignation - will have to wait until after the Queen's Speech in November.

It calls for the tactics of the middle-distance runner - and not the favourite for the gold medal. But his supporters believe that his political rehabilitation is complete. There has been the bravura performance during the Scott inquiry - the first significant sign after the hammering he took over the pit closures debacle and last summer's heart attack.

There is the fact that while of the Tory 'left', and despite the Thatcher conflicts, he has never been an Ian Gilmour or Jim Prior type of wet. While believing that not everything could be left to market forces, he was strongly in favour of council house sales and is a front-runner among the privatisers.

Behind the scenes, the pro- Heseltine group of backbench Tories are beavering, while the recent Stockton lecture saw him distance himself from the European exchange rate mechanism he once supported and denounce the European single market as having become so 'over-regulated, over-protected and over-centralised' that we now had 'Eurosclerosis', while remembering to mention his admiration for John Major.

(Photograph omitted)

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