The British scene: Heseltine's expectations rest on Major's bad fortune

June 12, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The lion-maned Michael Heseltine would look good in a toga. He has the lean and hungry look of an ambitious Roman senator. Some say he also has the political instincts of, say, a Brutus.

His political role seems innocuous enough. Mr. Heseltine is president of Britain's Board of Trade and Industry, a government post which makes him roughly the equivalent of the secretary of commerce in the United States.

He's a great advocate of British competitiveness abroad and privatization at home. The Conservative government has sold off British Gas, British Airways, British Steel, British Telecom, Rolls Royce and even the Royal Mail.

But no politically awake Briton really believes that Mr. Heseltine's competitiveness stops at economic reform. Most think he wants to be prime minister someday.

His prospects today look brighter than a Florida vacation to a rain-sodden Cockney. Oddly, Mr. Heseltine's future is so bright because the Conservatives bombed in a by-election Thursday.

The Conservatives were battered into third place in Eastleigh, a Hampshire parliamentary seat vacated by Stephen Milligan, who died from autoerotic asphyxiation. Eastleigh voters turned a 17,702 Conservative majority into a 9,239 loss to the Liberal Democrats. The Labor Party came in second.

"Beastleigh," punned the headline in the Conservative Daily Express.

British observers immediately read the returns as a signal that even hard-core supporters were deserting Prime Minister John Major, who has been skidding along with the worst approval ratings for a prime minister since World War II. A recent poll indicated that 79 percent of the voters were dissatisfied with the way he is running the country.

Mr. Major has failed to restore confidence in his leadership despite an economic recovery and his skepticism about European integration, which is shared by many Britons. Bookmakers William Hill make him even money to lose his job before the next general election. Mr. Heseltine is 5-2 to replace him.

Mr. Major's troubles are expected to compound today, when the results of voting for the European Parliament are released. Britain and three other nations voted Thursday; the rest of the European Union nations vote today.

"Disaster No. 2 on the Way," the tabloid Evening Standard warned.

Of course, Mr. Heseltine routinely pledges support for Mr. Major.

But skepticism abounds. Mr. Heseltine was instrumental in hastening the departure of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, which paved the way for Mr. Major's ascent.

"I'm so weary of these questions," he said in an interview. "The fact is Mr. Major is going to lead the Conservatives into the next election, and he will get an enhanced majority.

"And I will tell you why," he said. "Because the British economy is now recovering very well. It is going to go on recovering, and when the next election is forced, John Major will be seen as the leader who kept his nerve, pursued the right policies and delivered the results upon which he will be re-elected.

"And at that time people will look at the Labor and Liberal alternatives and shake their heads with disbelief that as a protest in midterm they ever dreamt of giving them any credibility whatsoever."

You could take that forecast to the bookmakers, Mr. Heseltine says: "You'll get very good odds."

Those odds in favor of Mr. Major's survival were enhanced by the recent death of another politician, John Smith, the head of the opposition Labor Party, who was 20 to 25 percentage points ahead of Mr. Major. His death has created a leadership contest within the Labor Party and taken some pressure off the prime minister.

Mr. Heseltine's career also seemed set back by the way Mr. Smith died: of a massive second heart attack. Mr. Heseltine had a heart attack last year.

He claims to be fully recovered, and he certainly seemed fit as he sipped a glass of wine and lunched on stuffed salmon in the Foreign Press Association's dining room.

He was completely at ease, self-confident and even imperious as he vigorously defended his positions.

Some of his colleagues find him a bit nouveau.

"He bought his own furniture," sniffed Alan Clark, a right-wing member of Parliament cited by Alan Rawnsley, a columnist for the Observer.

"The sort of man who combs his hair in public," said Willie Whitelaw, a quintessential Conservative.

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