Susan Young reports on how the Education Secretary is being marginalised in a Cabinet power struggle. Famously, Michael Heseltine once promised to intervene before breakfast, before lunch, and before dinner. At the time, the promise was directed at British industry: now, observers are beginning to wonder if he has extended it to include education policy.
In the past fortnight there have been stories that Mr Heseltine wants to publish a potentially embarrassing audit of the nation's skills this summer, against the wishes of Education Secretary Gillian Shephard; that he has also trounced her over plans to make local authorities compete for cash for capital projects such as school repairs: and discussed the possibility of News Corporation providing a satellite dish for every school with chairman Rupert Murdoch, thus stealing Labour's technology thunder.
Since becoming deputy prime minister in the summer, Mr Heseltine has acquired a powerbase which is the envy of most Cabinet ministers. As part of his baggage included the competitiveness department he founded when President of the Board of Trade, he has good reason to have a particular interest in how qualifications targets are being met.
Moreover, it gives him a wide-ranging and legitimate remit. Not only does Mr Heseltine chair the powerful competitiveness committee, of which most senior ministers are members, but his 30-strong competitiveness department, led by Dr Bob Dobbie who used to be the Department of Trade and Industry's regional director in Liverpool, ranges, co-ordinates and initiates across Whitehall.
Under ordinary circumstances, the scene might have been set for a few tussles over policy. Every minister has had to submit, with more or less good grace, to their diary being scrutinised by the deputy prime minister as part of the new determination to maximise good news. But few have endured the combination of pitched battles and over-ruling on key decisions apparently suffered by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, who must by now be getting used to receiving little notes from Mr Heseltine with the opening lines "I think it would be a good idea if . . ."
After a triumphant first year pouring copious quantities of oil on the troubled waters of education, it seems Mrs Shephard's star is in the descendant among the right wing of the Tory party and the press. While the general complaint is that she has been too emollient towards the teachers - the Daily Telegraph even went so far as to call her an educationist, a term of insult - Mrs Shephard appears to have shot herself in the foot by not squashing swiftly enough stories that she would have been prepared to stand as leader of the Conservative party had John Major lost the internal election last summer.
Many MPs believed she was actively promoting such speculation, and after a decade of Thatcher, were not keen to extend the experiment of having a female PM.
"There's a lot of 'Let's get Gilly'," says one insider, describing rows between Downing Street and Sanctuary Buildings. "The Prime Minister and Mr Heseltine are increasingly taking the initiative and not bothering to tell her."
When the competitiveness department's skills audit was mooted last autumn, it was widely understood to be about training and nothing to do with schools. "What happened in the last couple of weeks is that Heseltine's people have been going round saying that it's going to be critical of the way in which the education system has failed a whole generation of young people. What's more, it is coming out at the same time as Mrs Shephard's White Paper on school selection," a Labour MP explains.
Although up until now Mr Heseltine's interest in education has either been buried under other commitments or non-existent, depending on whom you talk to, it is now very clearly defined. As a successful businessman whose Haymarket Publications have made him one of the country's 500 richest people, his great passion is competition and Britain's place in the business world. It is therefore basic skills, training and outputs which most interest him. He is not believed to be greatly interested in the nitty-gritty such as vouchers or grammar schools, except perhaps as potential election winners.
He is understood to have thrown his weight behind a plan to pilot education and training vouchers for 16 to 19-year-olds, despite having previously been "dubious about the practicalities", as one source mused.
One reason that the recent report by Sir Ron Dearing on 16-19 education was so warmly and immediately received was that the wily author had carefully prepared his ground first, both with Mrs Shephard and Mr Heseltine. It is by such careful attention to detail that Sir Ron has earned his reputation as a fixer par excellence, and if he thought it necessary to court the deputy prime minister and take his views on board, then Mr Heseltine is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
His apparent determination to publish potentially disastrous figures comparing the results of 17 years of Tory education policies with other countries perhaps demonstrate his political chutzpah, but interpretations vary. A Labour opponent suggests it could be a way of drawing a line under the past and earning points for being candid. Chris Humphries, policy director of the Training and Enterprise Council National Council, says the current training targets may only tell part of the story, while Sir Malcolm Thornton, chairman of the newly-created education and employment committee commented: "Caveat emptor. " International comparisons may not be so straightforward as they first seem, he said.
An interesting question now will be how much influence Mr Heseltine has in the writing of the manifesto - and, indeed, in the career prospects of Mrs Shephard. One backbencher sees more dangers for her emanating from the Number 10 Policy Unit where Norman Blackwell and Dominic Morris hold sway on such traditionally right-wing issues as grammar schools and selective education. "There's a misreading of the situation if they think that's going to be an election winner," he said.
Meanwhile, there are many fans of the Michael Heseltine approach. Sir Malcolm says: "Michael is looking at UK plc and what it needs to maintain a competitive edge." Chris Humphries, meanwhile, adds: "Business people are one of the few groups under-represented in Parliament and the Cabinet."