A rash of vanity publishing from the politically extinct

Norman Lamont, whose book will probably sell poorly, can only recount a story of bitterness

AS THE Party Conference season approaches, so the great men of British politics hurry to finish their memoirs in the hope of getting in the first, if not the last word, on their achievements. Money is often cited as a prime motive for the political prominent, but it is not the sole reason why they rush into print once they are no longer in office. The real motive is vanity: the desire to set the record straight (as they see it), and to defend themselves against the attacks of their enemies, whether they be individuals or newspapers. Lady Thatcher's dull volumes earned her a great deal of money of which she had little need. Denis was rich: and her lecturing on the American circuit, when added to the Prime Ministerial pension and other perks, does not suggest financial hardship.

John Major's book, which is due this autumn, in time for the Conservative party's conference, has been written both for money and, more importantly from Major's point of view, to put Margaret Thatcher's disloyalty to him at the top of his agenda. That there is no love at the top is a truism common to most senior politicians. John Major will reserve his second smoking barrel for Lord Lamont ("Little Norm") whose shortcomings as Chancellor will be his principal target.

Norman Lamont, whose book will, in all probability sell poorly, can only recount a story tinged with bitterness that ended in a surprise defeat in his "safe" seat at the general election. He is likely to advocate Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, along the lines of Lady Thatcher's dinner table-talk.

Ted Heath's recent book came as a pleasant surprise. The old boy has mellowed, and the old battles, with Margaret Thatcher in particular, were glossed over. The book was a witty record of his time in and out of office, spiced with a degree of necessary mischief.

What then of Michael Heseltine's magnum opus for which no title has, as yet, been decided upon. ("So Near and Yet so Far" has been suggested). His publishers have paid the journalist and biographer Anthony Howard to put the book into English, and progress to date has been slow. The book is due to be published in the Autumn of 2001 - just in time for [another] row at the Conservatives' last conference before the next election.

Michael Heseltine has dropped from the public's view, although he has promised to help lead the pro- European party in a referendum (along with Blair, Clarke and Kennedy). He finds the Hague-led Tory party not to be Tory, but to have become a crudely nationalist party, the "Britain firsters", poorly led by "Little William", whose shadow cabinet contains one pro-European, Sir George Young, and a narrow majority of those who would take Britain out of Europe altogether. And, above the party, there floats the miasma of corruption. Why was Michael Ashcroft made Treasurer? And why has he not done the decent thing and resigned? The fact that Hague put forward Ashcroft's name for a peerage, which was then turned down by the Scrutiny Committee, tells you all you need to know.

Michael Heseltine must be a sadly disappointed man. The deputy premiership was not what he set out to achieve when an undergraduate at Oxford all those years ago. His political hero is David Lloyd George, and his attachment to the Conservative party has never been solid. He sees himself on the liberal wing of the party, robbed of the fruits of office through ill health, and depressed by the reactionary nature of today's party. For the first time in Michael's life, the party activist stands to the left of the party leadership. When he became a Tory at Oxford in 1951, his enemies were the supporters of Sir Waldron Smithers, and all those other Tories who had not come to terms with the Beveridge settlement. Today, he must be bitter to find his old enemies in a position of dominance.

Heseltine might well cut his losses, and write a book that would finally sever his connections with the Tory party. But, he remains an optimist. Were the Tories to lose the next election, what would happen to the party? Hague might be for the high jump, of course. But might it split, leaving Heseltine (or Clarke) to take over the more moderate half of the rump? He has been heard to murmur that he has not yet reached the age when Gladstone was still Prime Minister.

Whatever the politics of these books, when it comes to business it has to be said that most political autobiographies are liable to sell surprisingly poorly. Lord Whitelaw's was an example: he was as discreet in print as he had been in word and deed. Publishers and publicists - and readers - want the beans split.

Serialisation is vitally important, and I believe that John Major's book will be extensively trailed. It is too early to tell about Lamont (unlikely) and Michael Heseltine, which will depend on the extent Tony Howard takes Michael's cards away from his chest. The Autumn Tory party conference determines the timing of publication.

Journalists will devote themselves to stirring the pot, which in John Major's case, seems hardly necessary. The authors will speak in well-attended meetings on the conference "fringe", while Lady Thatcher, looking more and more like an elderly bird-of-prey, will milk the party conference faithful (a diminishing band) for what it is worth.

A successful autobiography enables its authors to settle old scores, and set up trust funds for his, or her impecunious relatives. The autobiography seems to be giving way to the diary, of which Alan Clark's is the best example, and Gyles Brandreth's, the worst, although both George Walden's and Robin Day's autobiographies scored well for the second eleven. Were William Hague to lose both the general election and the party leadership to Michael Portillo, his comparative precocity would not prevent him from putting pen to paper. There does not seem to be another Tory of distinction worthy of commission, although Tony Blair's autobiography (The Second Coming) would do well.

But we must be patient. There are delights enough in the offing. What did Norma Major really think of Margaret Thatcher? Does Lamont consider he has a future? Will Michael Heseltine give us the true story of Westland?

However I believe it is Sir Leon Brittan who knows where the bodies are buried. We have much to look forward to.

Sir Julian Critchley was a Tory MP for 31 years. His autobiography was published by Faber in 1995. It is called `A Bag of Boiled Sweets', and still sells well.

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