It's a comeback to rival that of Lazarus. Michael Heseltine, Britain's Trade & Industry Minister and the man who brought down Margaret Thatcher in 1990, is again the leading contender to be Prime Minister if, as widely expected, the hapless John Major leaves office. In the event that Heseltine replaces his friend at No.10 Downing Street, there could be lasting consequences for Britain's position in the European Union. It would also give British industry a respected spokesman in world markets and might even bring stability to capital markets, which suspect that Major's government recently cut interest rates to boost its flagging popularity.
Almost all pundits agree a leadership change is coming. Major can't be forced out until November, when a new session of Parliament begins. But he may resign as early as July to avoid a bitter contest. At least, that's what the key players seem to think. Heseltine, together with Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke and Treasury Secretary Michael Portillo, is already running an unofficial campaign in the media and in local party back offices.
STALKED OUT. Pollsters say Heseltine has recently emerged as the only serious candidate. "The public's fed up with John Major, and Heseltine is the only star that's rising," says Robert M. Worcester, a Market & Opinion Research International pollster.
A millionaire publisher who was Environment Minister and Defense Minister under Thatcher, Heseltine stalked out of her cabinet in 1986 and then engineered her fall four years later. Thatcher made sure he didn't replace her. But Major chose Heseltine to head Trade & Industry, where he has won kudos from business. Better cooperation between business and government in finding new export markets will be a Heseltine trademark, if he's elevated.
Widely viewed as the most pro-Europe member of the Cabinet, Heseltine has lately been bashing Brussels to placate the right wing of the party. But one friend says: "He hasn't changed his stripes. He's as pro-Europe as ever." He'll probably make Britain more of a team player in European affairs--turf he must tread carefully, since British voters remain wary of European meddling.
RESURRECTED. Just six months ago, Heseltine seemed to be finished. He committed a political blunder in proposing to shut down what's left of the coal industry, thereby threatening the jobs of thousands of miners in the midst of a recession. Last summer, he suffered a heart attack while on holiday in Venice, and many wrote his political obituary at the time. But at 61, and with a full shock of hair that has earned him the nickname Tarzan, Heseltine is back as a force and now seems accepted, if not forgiven, even by Thatcherites.
Meanwhile, Major is trying to hang tough, hoping that Britain's being No.1 in Europe in economic growth will save his hide. Yet the Conservatives will likely take a drubbing in local elections on May 5 and in European Parliament elections on June 9, and these may be Major's undoing. The Conservative Party is so unpopular that only 27% of voters say they would vote Tory today. Why? The recovery still doesn't feel like one: 46% of all voters worry about losing a job soon.
Major's not the only one in the doghouse. Most European politicians are mistrusted today--as workers grumble over the slow pace of recovery and the steady loss of jobs to cheaper-labor countries. Voters are turning away from incumbent politicians in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. For now, it seems British voters have an alternative in Heseltine--but it's a fickle electorate he's playing to.