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Heseltine Steps Back Into the Spotlight

Conservative gains favor as Major falls

MICHAEL HESELTINE, the high-flying Conservative politician who was defeated by Prime Minister John Major in his party's leadership contest in 1990, is again being talked about as a likely future prime minister.

Political analysts say Britain's trade secretary, known for his fiery speeches, fierce ambition, and flaxen hair, is well placed to take advantage of Mr. Major's personal unpopularity and apparent inability to get a grip on his government's fortunes.

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Mr. Heseltine's standing among Conservative members of Parliament, who choose the Party leader, has risen sharply following evidence he gave last month to a public inquiry into British arms sales to Iraq. Other Cabinet ministers had told the inquiry that last year they signed gag orders that would have had the effect of withholding evidence from a court trying three businessmen accused of engaging in illegal arms trading.

In his appearance before the inquiry, Heseltine said he had resisted pressure from Sir Nicholas Lyell, the attorney general, to sign such an order because he felt it would deny the accused men a fair trial. The trial later collapsed when the existence of the gag orders became known.

Heseltine's inquiry evidence was sharply different from that of Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor of the exchequer, who said he had felt justified in signing the orders.

Until now, Mr. Clarke has been seen as the front-runner for the Conservative Party leadership.

Anthony Howard, a leading political analyst, says that in the eyes of Conservative MPs, Heseltine has suddenly been transformed into ``a knight in shining armor.''

Mr. Howard believes that many right-wing Conservatives, who dislike Clarke's strongly pro-European views, will see Heseltine as a more acceptable choice as leader if Major's standing continues to fall. The trade secretary's sudden return to popularity is all the more remarkable because last year he ordered a series of heavily criticized coal mine closures. Soon afterward, he suffered a period of ill health, from which he has recovered.

Heseltine is the only survivor of the government Lady Margaret Thatcher formed when she took office in 1979. He later quarreled with the ``iron lady'' but returned to the Cabinet when Major displaced her in 1990.

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In the 1990 leadership battle, he was the first man to throw his hat into the ring. Major drew support from Conservative MPs largely because he appeared to be a credible ``stop Heseltine'' candidate. The steady decline in Major's popularity, however, has made some Conservatives believe they made the wrong choice.

The latest opinion poll showed only one voter in four favored the Conservatives. Most voters gave Major low marks for leadership, and many said they were critical of tax increases Clarke ordered in last year's budget that are due to take effect next month.

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