Thatcher's 3 would-be successors pledge to restore Conservative unity

November 25, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The three claimants to succeed Margaret Thatcher face Conservative members of Parliament with a perplexing choice in Tuesday's vote for the party's new leader.

They all support similar policies and are pledged to heal the wounds of the bloody and bruising prelude to Mrs. Thatcher's ouster.

All are, to varying degrees, more pro-European than Mrs. Thatcher.

This is a look at the three men who would be Britain's next prime minister.

Michael Heseltine

The 57-year-old politician, nicknamed Tarzan, has never been short of vision.

Throughout his life, he has set himself goals -- and met them. In his 20s he wanted to make money. He became a multimillionaire through magazine and property empires. In his 30s he would enter politics. He was elected to Parliament at 33. He wanted to be prime minister by 55. He is two years behind schedule.

One night in May 1976, confronted in the House of Commons with Labor members singing "The Red Flag," Mr. Heseltine grabbed the official mace and brandished it angrily at them. It was a gesture that aroused suspicions that he is impetuous.

It did not stop Mrs. Thatcher from appointing him environment secretary in her first Cabinet after she won the election in 1979. He established himself as a policy innovator and was credited particularly with interest in the inner cities, sparked by a visit to the depressed port of Liverpool after serious race riots.

He was appointed minister of defense in 1983. The son of an Army colonel and himself a former officer in the Welsh Guards, he quickly showed his hostility to anti-nuclear demonstrators picketing against the deployment of cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth air bases.

It was as defense minister that he made his biggest impact in 1986 -- storming out of a Thatcher Cabinet meeting and resigning from the government to protest the prime minister's refusal to sell a British helicopter company to a European rather than a U.S. buyer.

He has been barnstorming the country since, rallying support among Conservative constituents for his vision of a Britain committed to Europe, with a government more involved in the domestic economy and a more caring brand of conservatism.

He can now claim to have demonstrated the courage to face down one of this century's major British prime ministers, although Thatcherites regard his challenge more as treachery than bravery.

The polls identify him as the man most likely to lead the Conservatives to their fourth consecutive election victory, giving him strong appeal to the survival instinct of members of Parliament who will choose Mrs. Thatcher's successor Tuesday.

His main drawback is that he is seen as a man of style rather than substance. Physically, he is a fine figure of a man, his athletic 6 feet dressed by Savile Row, his blond hair coiffed by Trumpers of St. James, his feet normally shod in Gucci loafers.

The Guardian recently described him as "a very American-style politician running for an increasingly presidential-style office."

Douglas Hurd

Two words from Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd helped seal Mrs. Thatcher's fate. Asked whether he ruled out his own entry into the Conservative leadership race, he replied: "Against her."

This reflected his unwillingness to directly challenge the woman who had been his political patron, but also his readiness to seek power if she faltered.

Unable to obtain a winning majority of the votes in last Tuesday's opening ballot against Mr. Heseltine, Mrs. Thatcher was persuaded by the party's "men in the gray suits" to step aside to allow other contenders to pick up the challenge.

Enter Douglas Hurd, a tall, white-haired Old Etonian, known as the diplomats' diplomat.

"Division can well spell disaster," he said, announcing his candidacy. "I believe I can unite the party in handling the present problems and in winning the next general election."

If anyone is capable of spreading oil on troubled waters, it is Mr. Hurd. At 60, he also offers the party a caretaker leader while the younger generation hones leadership skills a while longer.

Mr. Hurd's grandfather was a member of Parliament, his father a baron. He denies being "born with a silver spoon in his mouth," but his upbringing was classically Tory: after Eton, Cambridge University. After Cambridge, the foreign service.

He served in Beijing, at the United Nations and in Rome in his 14 years at the Foreign Office before he took up active politics by joining the Conservative Research Department's foreign affairs section in 1966.

He was a comparative latecomer to Parliament at the age of 44. He worked his way through the ranks of junior minister until he became secretary for Northern Ireland, a political bed of nails, which he survived.

It seemed just a year ago that his political career might have peaked. Mrs. Thatcher passed him over for the job he most wanted -- foreign secretary -- and even offered his job as home secretary to another member of the Cabinet.

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