LONDON — OCCASIONALLY a British politician decides that the best way to become prime minister is to opt for a spell of high-profile exile and make a power bid from the sidelines. Michael Heseltine is such a man. A leading figure in the Conservative Party for 20 years, he stormed out of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet three years ago, and ever since has been quietly nurturing his hopes of one day succeeding the ``Iron Lady'' at 10 Downing Street.
Like all true political exiles, Mr. Heseltine denies that he hankers after anything more than to be a loyal backbench Tory. But he has reason to think that his long-range leadership strategy is working nicely.
In 1986, when he was defense minister, he abruptly resigned after a dispute with Mrs. Thatcher over who - the United States or a European consortium - should build Britain's military helicopters. This resignation took him out of the immediate circle of power, but it marked him as an independent spirit, free to push his own ideas from the backbenches and at the myriad political functions around Britain.
As a former party chairman, he was already well known as a speaker. Now he can take his message direct to the Tory faithful, and Thatcher can do little about it, without alienating her rival's millions of admirers. He has a crowded agenda up and down the country, and is in great demand as a speaker at Conservative Party meetings.
Heseltine comes from a comfortable middle-class background in Wales. He went on to Oxford University and became president of the Union - an elite debating society which has been the launch pad of numerous British public figures. After spells in real estate and accountancy, Heseltine became a publisher and made a small fortune. He is therefore a man of independent means - another plus for a political outsider.
Heseltine never makes a direct attack on Thatcherite policies - he expounds policies of his own. ``The major issue,'' he says, ``is Britain's relationship with Europe. We should look increasingly to the coherence that is growing in Western Europe.''
Decoded, this means: Thatcher has got it wrong. Britain should cooperate with the Europeans, not lecture or oppose them.
Another issue Heseltine has made his own is the environment. (He was environment secretary in the early Thatcher years).
``We need to conserve the dwindling countryside and encourage the dispersal of economic growth more widely and more fairly. The green agenda is a long and familiar one. For every item on that agenda, solutions must be found,'' he says.
Heseltine is also keen to assert the need for a ``mixed'' economy. Decoded: Thatcher's ideas are too dogmatic - let us all be flexible, like me.
The game he is playing is hazardous. His strategy depends on the Tory rank and file at some point abandoning Thatcher. With his gifts as an orator, his good looks, his sure-footed manner, and his considerable personal fortune, he seems better suited to presidential politics than to the parliamentary variety. Will he succeed?
By way of an answer Heseltine tosses a mane of yellow hair, pulls on the cuffs of an immaculate blue shirt that matches his eyes, and declares: ``Who knows what the future holds? There is no contest, no vacancy - at the moment. If there should be some unforeseeable circumstances at some unpredictable time, then you can ask me about the premiership.''
``Give me a crystal ball,'' he adds.
With a rival like him around, Thatcher might like to have a crystal ball too.