The greatest tit

Life in the Jungle: my autobiography

Michael Heseltine<em> Hodder & Stoughton, 560pp, £20 ISBN 0340739150</em>

I have every reason to be grateful to Michael Heseltine. If he had not been good enough to walk out of the Cabinet on a cold January morning in 1986, I would not have been invited to join it an hour later, replacing George Younger, who had filled the gap in the Ministry of Defence. In other respects, too, I should have been close to him. We were both highly suspect as far as Margaret Thatcher was concerned. Like him, I supported British membership of the European Union. In his auto-biography, Heseltine writes that he expected me to be one of those who, with him, would help maintain the one-nation tradition of the Tory party in the Commons after the 1997 election.

And yet, I didn't feel able to vote for Heseltine in 1990, even after Thatcher withdrew. I voted for Douglas Hurd; and if he hadn't been available, I would probably have voted for John Major. My attitude, similar to that of many others, probably explains why Heseltine never became prime minister. It wasn't just the right of the party that was determined to stop him. Many in the centre did not see him as the right person to be prime minister, despite his many undoubted talents.

Why was this? In some respects, he answers the question himself in Life in the Jungle. It is a rather disappointing book. Most of it could have been written by any worthy minister who has spent years immersed in the serious but dull business of the Department of the Environment or the DTI. He tells us about his daily battles to clean up the environment, deregulate industry, improve competitiveness and regenerate the inner cities. It is all serious and honourable business, but it has little to do with the public image of Heseltine. What made him a "big beast of the jungle" was not the urban task forces, the Audit Commission or the Docklands Light Railway, but the battle against Thatcher, the swinging of the mace, the storming out of the Cabinet, the flak jacket and the fiery rhetoric at party conferences.

But all of these, he assures us, were misunderstandings or media exaggerations. He never plotted against Thatcher, he lifted the mace only gently, his resignation was unplanned and the flak jacket had been given to him because it was raining. If we accept all that, we are left with an industrious, conscientious and conventional minister with good looks, long blond hair and an ability to cheer up Tory activists - a good colleague, yes, but hardly the stuff of which prime ministers and world statesmen are made.

Many would not accept Heseltine's version of events. But the alternative, although more colourful, implies a volatile person-ality, a plotting temperament and a habitual lack of judgement. Either way, he had problems. But which is the real Michael Heseltine? He was undoubtedly very ambitious, but how many politicians aren't? He was neither as ruthless nor as assiduous in the pursuit of his ambition as he might have been. I had been in the Commons since 1974, and he knew me to be on the centre left of the party. But neither before nor after his resignation did he make any effort to cultivate my support, apart from a single conversation in the Lobby during the leadership campaign.

After his defeat by Major, Heseltine became the most loyal and helpful of colleagues in both the Cabinet and the parliamentary party, neither of which was famous for its loyalty or help to the then prime minister. During the torrid years from 1992-97, it is difficult to believe that he could not have undermined Major and replaced him, if he had been sufficiently determined. But he made no attempt to do so. Despite past conflicts and his natural disappointment, he behaved much better to Major than Gordon Brown is behaving to Tony Blair.

Those who become prime minister usually do so for one of two reasons: either they are like Harold Wilson, Lloyd George or Disraeli, combining single-minded determination with a genius for political tactics, or they are like Thatcher, Churchill or Gladstone, seen to represent the needs and aspirations of the nation at a crucial time. Often, both characteristics are to be found in the same person; rarely does a prime minister have neither.

That was Heseltine's problem. He had the ambition, but his tactics were mediocre. The incident with the mace and his resignation over Westland made him a national figure, but the leadership of the Conservative Party was not decided by the nation - it was decided by his parliamentary colleagues. They concluded that his judgement was poor and that he was too theatrical to be their leader.

Nor was Heseltine lucky with the spirit of the times. He was seen to represent a more interventionist, more European and more Heathite Toryism than the party wanted in the Eighties or Nineties. Activists loved him at the party conference, and cheered him to the rooftops, but they were there to be entertained, not persuaded. Likewise, the public saw and was amused by an exuberant personality. But it did not see an alternative vision for the nation, because he did not have one.

We are left with a kinder, nicer and more sensitive Michael Heseltine than his reputation implied: a minister who was competent, innovative and often brave. The citizens of Toxteth, Docklands and the inner cities have every reason to be grateful to him. As a colleague, he was more loyal than most assumed, and one who was genuinely attracted to using power to improve the lot of his fellow man.

He also has a fine sense of humour, and is happy to direct it against himself. When he was part of a birdwatching society at his public school, they all had names associated with their hobby. His, he tells us, was "Great Tit". Public life was good to him. He began as a great tit and ended as a big beast of the jungle. Most of us would settle for that.

Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary from 1995-97