Not such a very Big Beast

<i>Life in the Jungle</i> by Michael Heseltine (Hodder &amp; Stoughton, &pound;20, 560pp)
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The Independent Culture

Michael Heseltine has always denied the late Julian Critchley's story that he wrote out his career plan on the back of an envelope at Oxford, ending with becoming Prime Minister in the 1990s. He denies it again here. Whether literally true or not, however, it has stuck because it seemed poetically true. Heseltine always came across as one of those refreshingly candid politicians who live unashamedly by F E Smith's dictum that "the world continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords". He made no secret of his enjoyment of the political game nor of his perfectly honourable ambition to win it.

Michael Heseltine has always denied the late Julian Critchley's story that he wrote out his career plan on the back of an envelope at Oxford, ending with becoming Prime Minister in the 1990s. He denies it again here. Whether literally true or not, however, it has stuck because it seemed poetically true. Heseltine always came across as one of those refreshingly candid politicians who live unashamedly by F E Smith's dictum that "the world continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords". He made no secret of his enjoyment of the political game nor of his perfectly honourable ambition to win it.

This, of course, is not the way to get to No 10. Those who climb the greasy pole more often achieve it - like Margaret Thatcher, John Major or Tony Blair - by popping up unexpectedly at the right moment when the vacancy arises.

Heseltine has earned a place in the dictionary of quotations for his wry conclusion that "He who wields the knife never wears the crown". But neither by stalking and eventually destroying Mrs Thatcher, nor by the opposite route of serving loyally for seven years, waiting to pick up the mantle from Major's dwindling authority, did he secure the prize. Even in May 1997, the Tory leadership might have been his had he made one more grasp for it. But, as he frankly says, "I did not want to be Leader of the Opposition".

His undisguised ambition to be PM was the reason Mrs Thatcher so distrusted him. From the moment she formed her first Cabinet in May 1979, Heseltine already stood out as the likeliest long-term threat to her. He was unclassifiable, neither an apologetic "wet" like the Pyms and the Priors, nor a monetarist "dry" like the Lawsons and Tebbits, whom she brought in to shore up her position as soon as she was strong enough, but sui generis.

He was a millionaire businessman and energetic moderniser, in many ways exactly the type she favoured, but with a heretical hankering for industrial intervention and an ego to match her own. She approved his introduction of business management techniques into Whitehall, applauded his zeal in selling council houses while at the Department of Environment and was delighted with the way he took the propaganda battle to the unilateralists when she moved him to the Ministry of Defence. Yet there was always tension between them which threatened an explosion long before the fate of Westland helicopters provided the spark.

Heseltine's account of Westland, coming so long after those of most of the other leading players, adds little new. The claims and counterclaims of leaks and cancelled meetings are familiar to those still interested and long forgotten by everyone else. The truth is that both Heseltine and Thatcher behaved outrageously in response to the other's provocation. There is no doubt that the prime minister tarnished her integrity over the leak of Patrick Mayhew's letter. Heseltine's only new charge is that she was opposed to the European consortium not merely out of a general preference for things American but specifically to pay back Al Haig for his help in the Falklands. He makes nothing of the more sinister suspicion that it was all to do with selling helicopters to Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Nor does he add much colour to the Shakespearean drama of November 1990. He relates the events honestly, so far as one can tell, reflecting on his difficulty in choosing the moment to strike, cast inescapably as the challenger in waiting and ultimately forced on by Bernard Ingham's taunts of cowardice. He describes the moment when he heard on his car-phone that Mrs Thatcher had decided to resign: he knew instantly that his chance had gone.

Had she fought on, as she vowed to do, he is convinced he would have won; but the moment she stood down and rallied the Cabinet behind Major to stop Heseltine at all costs, he was finished. He had served his historic function by wielding the knife: now he must now serve a new leader who was barely a member of the government when he had left it. If his account of the deposition of Mrs Thatcher is flat, his account of the next seven years is flatter still.

In truth, it is a very dull and self-congratulatory record of departmental problems overcome against the doubts of colleagues and the obstruction of officials. After all the hype and embargoes, the only stories the newspapers could unearth were some wild criticism of Hague's hostility to Europe and a bullish defence of the Dome, which Heseltine - writing before the latest fiascos - still sees as a triumph. Characteristically, he fails to suggest what the thing was supposed to be for.

In fact, the whole book is a let-down. Where is the flamboyance, the showmanship, the relish that made Heseltine such an exciting politician? It is well known - and duly acknowledged - that he was helped in the writing by his old friend Anthony Howard. Yet whereas grey John Major turned out in his autobiography to be a deft and disarming writer, Heseltine the conference orator and combative interviewee is reduced to anonymity on the page.

Some years ago, following his classic deconstructions of Jeffrey Archer, the biographer Michael Crick turned his probing pen on Heseltine. Another promising subject, surely, with skeletons to be uncovered in his business career? Not at all. Crick wrote an admirable book - much livelier than this one - but it turned out that Heseltine, intent on his political career, had been almost unnaturally careful to leave no hostages behind.

And perhaps that really is the man: a much more decent, cautious and conventional character than his swashbuckling image suggests. He loves birds and his trees, but has no interest in any of the arts. He has been happily married for nearly 40 years, and has no time for the Archers, Aitkens and others who messed up their careers and the Tory government by sexual and financial misdemeanours.

He is most exercised by those colleagues who he thinks behaved dishonourably towards himself - Mrs Thatcher over Westland, Norman Tebbit in an earlier row over shipbuilding contracts, Clive Ponting for leaking official secrets. He portrays himself uncritically as a hard worker who has done the state some service in a variety of offices and deserves its thanks. But the legend of Tarzan swinging through the political jungle is curiously diminished. Perhaps deputy prime minister was his level after all.

John Campbell's biography 'Margaret Thatcher: the grocer's daughter' is published by Cape

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