Books: Blond ambition

John Rentoul investigates the nearly man of high politics

Michael Heseltine: a life by Michael Crick, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20

At last the flame of the intense ambition which has defined Michael Heseltine is out. Many times it seemed dead, only to spring up again and blaze as fiercely as his oratory, one of the minor wonders of modern British politics. But his last chance to make it to 10 Downing Street was as a stop-gap if something happened to John Major before the general election. Now it is all over, except for the history books.

The books come sooner now in our foreshortened times, and so here is Michael Crick to put What Went Wrong in hard covers. Heseltine is a ripe- looking subject for what the blurb calls "investigative biography": the nearly man of high politics, who offered a more credible alternative to Thatcherism than the 1980s Labour Party, but who always came second - which is where his rise ended, as Deputy Prime Minister.

This book is a top-class example of a relatively new genre, applying the techniques of serious historical study to practising politicians. Crick is a superb journalist and a plain writer, which I mean as the highest compliment. But where with his biography of Jeffrey Archer we felt an inveterate mythmaker was caught bang to rights against a wall of fact, with Heseltine we feel a sense of disappointment at there being less to the subject than meets the eye.

I looked forward to discovering the definitive answers to three puzzles I thought central to Heseltine's career. Did he cut any corners on his way to a fortune? Did he duck National Service? And what deal did he strike to become DPM? In each case, Crick is fair, thorough and clear. He is, after all, the journalist who discovered Major's Affair With The Older Woman by slogging through electoral registers. He went through them again for Heseltine's addresses (a daunting task) but the answers are less interesting.

Heseltine made his money - Crick estimates "at least pounds 150 million" - the way he says he did. Small-time property and publishing preceded the triple coup of launching Management Today, Campaign and Accountancy Age in three years, 1966-69. Each tapped a huge market for classified advertising. And that, more or less, was that. Even his infamous practice of paying bills late seems innocuous in context. He was running a hotel that was barely solvent: late payment was better than never.

What emerges in the early chapters is a sense of Heseltine's honesty: not a principled honesty, but an entirely pragmatic one. As well as the well-known story of his mapping out his future on the back of an envelope, Crick unearths several assertions by him - or inferences by his colleagues - that he had to be careful because "I'm going to be Prime Minister by the time I'm 50".

This effectively gives the plot away at the beginning. Despite snobbery of both left and right that such a swashbuckling figure must have something to hide, we know Heseltine will emerge unscathed.

His National Service is perhaps the least savoury episode, but Crick is scrupulous in measuring out only a mild rebuke. Yes, he got out early. But he was making legitimate use of the exemption for parliamentary candidates. Standing in a hopeless seat was not an empty device for him. On the other hand, he only served eight months of his compulsory two years, and managed to avoid returning by pleading it would damage his business, on which his mother and sister depended. This, says Crick, was "over-egging the pudding somewhat", and he seems to have benefited from the War Office's class-biased sympathy.

My third question, about the deal which secured Heseltine the title and the powers of secundus inter pares, receives a less full answer. Of course, only two people really know what happened during Heseltine's long meeting with Major on the morning of the Tory leadership election 18 months ago. Major survived John Redwood's challenge, and the next day Heseltine was appointed DPM.

Crick reveals that Heseltine had made contingency plans to run for the leadership if Major had been forced out in the first ballot. If that had been known at the time it would have weakened his claims to utter loyalty. But it is not the nub of the matter, because Heseltine had decided that he would be unlikely to win a second ballot. DPM was the price of his good behaviour during the leadership contest, and a consolation prize which also kept a tiny flame of ambition alive.

We will have to wait for further memoirs to find out more. In the meantime, this book gives history's interim verdict: that Heseltine failed to inspire and reward his supporters. It is well-known that Margaret Thatcher's campaign for the votes of Tory MPs in the 1990 leadership election was a shambles; Crick reveals that Heseltine's was poorly-run too. His circle of acolytes was too small and too marginal to carry enough weight.

There is an absence of amateur psychologising about Crick's book which is refreshing, but it means Heseltine's motivations remain obscure. He was never a warm person, he failed to cultivate potential allies and his honesty about his ambition made him disliked. But why did that flame burn so long and so brightly? We still do not know.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on