Ready To Pounce

Michael Heseltine, once described as 'the biggest beast in the Tory jungle', has gone to ground. But according to his friend and former colleague, it is only a matter of time before he emerges from his lair
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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL RAY DIBDIN Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister, has become conspicuous in his absence. For 20 years, as a minister of the Crown and a sharp thorn in Mrs Thatcher's side, he had scarcely been out of the papers. But these days, he is no longer to be seen sitting on the Opposition front bench in the Commons or stalking the corridors of power. Even in his heyday, when he was running for office, he rarely presented himself in the tea room, where the Tories gather to badmouth their colleagues over cups of sergeants' tea, or in the Members' Dining Room: Michael Heseltine has always been something of a loner. Today, there are recently elected Tory MPs who claim never to have caught a glimpse of him.

Michael has returned to his desk at the Haymarket Press, the company he has built up over the years. At weekends, he can be glimpsed in his arboretum on the border of Oxfordshire and Northants, planting some rare species of tree as a memorial to himself. Occasionally he goes shooting in Dorset, although, unlike his wife, Anne, he never rides to hounds. Once the "biggest beast in the Tory jungle", to quote the tabloids, Michael is licking his wounds. Had the Tories won in May 1997, and had he not had angina, he might now be Prime Minister, John Major having retired to the more salubrious parts of Brixton. William Hague would be Minister for Sport.

The truth is that Michael is out on a limb from the bulk of the Tory party. Those Conservative MPs who survived the May Massacre of 1997 are un- reconstructed right-wingers who cannot see a foreigner without crossing themselves. Hague is a colourless youth with a taste for funny hats. Peter Lilley is his dull deputy. The Shadow Chancellor, Francis Maude, son of Angus, has not shone any more brightly than his curmudgeonly father did. John Redwood brings his Faustian presence to bear on problems of trade and industry. The Second Eleven is at the crease.

Michael Heseltine may have abandoned the House of Commons, but he has not quit politics. He is president of Tory Mainstream, a group of the more sensible moderates, and the prospective leader of those Tories who would vote "yes" in any referendum to do with the Common Currency. He made his position clear at the fringe meeting of the Tory party conference at Bournemouth last autumn. When the trumpet sounds, he will take up arms once again.

Edward Heath has said that if he were to begin his political career all over again he would not join the Tory party. Michael, who probably feels much the same way, has been rather more guarded. He might have given up on his ambition to become Prime Minister, but he is prepared, as Hugh Gaitskell was in the Sixties, for one last fight "to save the party he loves".

His difficulty lies in the composition of today's Tory party. A quarter of the parliamentary party remains pro-European: another quarter is bitterly hostile to further integration; the rest sway with the prevailing wind. The Tory activists, those women with terrible hats and views to match, have, as is their custom, fallen in loyally behind the leader. The party conference, where Michael was in the past the star performer, is now barred to him - he does not sit in the Shadow Cabinet. Rather than risk a five-minute speech from the floor, he has exiled himself to the fringe, where he can make a speech of his choice. Michael will not stand for Henley at the next election. He will take up his position in what is left of the House of Lords.

But what sort of man is he? He would never be so bold as to bare his soul to Dr Anthony Clare. He is a very private person, and although he has little to hide, he would not be willing to admit this, preferring to retain an air of mystery. His drive has never endeared him to "the colleagues". Jealousy is rife in politics and, while Michael has a few close friends, he has always taken care not to speak of his ambition. But his tireless energy and high profile have always been enough for the disenchanted to accuse him of Caesarism. Ambition, however, is the engine for the public good, and without it we would all have remained backbenchers.

Michael's political hero was, and is, David Lloyd George. This is not without significance. Michael is Welsh (although in Wales he is thought of as English), and he has always admired the oratory and radicalism of the great Welsh leader, as well as his flair for politics. The heroes of most Tory MPs would range from Churchill (in his Tory mode) to Edmund Burke, to Margaret Thatcher, even to Oswald Mosley, but never to Lloyd George.

Michael can be ruthless both in business (as I know to my cost) and in politics. He has been accused of using his friends to his own advantage and, once they have been sucked dry, of promptly dropping them. But friendships do wear out. For Michael, the sheer rate of his progress up the ministerial ladder - junior minister under Ted Heath, in the Cabinet under Margaret - left many of his old friends panting to keep up with him.

In private, he has a nice sense of humour, and can laugh at himself. As a friend from his youth I can vouch for that. I was with him at prep school and at Shrewsbury School (though we were in different houses), but we did not become firm friends until October 1951, when we met on the stairs at Pembroke College, Oxford. I was best man at his wedding to Anne Williams in 1962, just as he was at my first marriage. But, close as our friendship has been, there was always within him an innate caution; he kept his cards pressed firmly to his chest. As I remember, he had little interest in food or drink, but we must now recall that he has consumed more rubber chicken while on the constituency rounds than anyone else. He is as straight as a die, and generous, not only towards his relatives. I once told him that a Mrs Gatehouse, who had taught him public speaking while at Oxford, had been widowed and had fallen on hard times. He promised to set up a trust for her.

Michael Jopling, once the Tory Chief Whip, memorably said of Michael (it was quoted in Alan Clark's diaries) that he was the kind of man who had to buy all his own furniture - a snobbish remark made by old money against new. But Michael has had the last laugh. His net worth has been estimated at pounds 70 million. He lives in a Palladian mansion in Northants, the gates of which were recast on purchase to incorporate the initials "MRDH" - an act which revealed a certain vulgarity. Michael is a Swansea boy made good. His background is middle-middle class. Like me, he is first- generation public school and Oxford. He owes his success, both in politics and business, to no one. He is wary and hard to lead into indiscretion, save one occasion in the early Eighties, when he described Mrs Thatcher as "that bloody woman". Recently, a close friend told him that he should try to make friends among the younger Tories. "But they are by far the worst," was his reply.

In a recent number of the newsletter published by the Conservative group for Europe, of which Lord Hurd is President, Michael Heseltine is reported as having said that he will continue to fight for his European beliefs, "putting his personal integrity before party loyalty". Asked whether he might resign from the Conservative party rather than support William Hague at the next election, he said that political leadership was about identifying the national interest and fighting for it. "If I am the last person fighting for what I believe, I shall continue to do so."

This statement comes perilously close to being a declaration of war.

He went on to say that the membership of the Conservative party needs to be increased to make it more representative of the country. He saw no advantage in moving to a Eurosceptic position - the Tories' adoption of such a position has reduced the party's poll rating to 24 per cent. Incidentally, a recent public opinion poll put William Hague's popularity rating at 12 per cent, the lowest ever achieved by a Conservative leader.

Much will depend upon events. If the Blair Government decides to fix a date for our entry into the European Monetary Union, it is committed to a referendum. If the 1975 referendum on joining the EC - which resulted in an overwhelming "yes" vote - is any guide, the party leaders will make common cause. The leaders of the "yes" campaign would include the Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine for the pro-European Tories and Paddy Ashdown for the Lib-Dems. William Hague, on the assumption that he is still leader then, would be out on his own. Given that Labour is likely to win the next election and also to win the referendum on Europe, Hague's position as Tory leader would be in jeopardy. Both Michael Portillo and Chris Patten would be waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, Heseltine has begun to write his memoirs. He dictates each morning to Eileen, his faithful secretary, who then types out his thoughts to the Ghost in the Machine, the writer and broadcaster Anthony Howard. Howard is perhaps Michael's greatest friend and a biographer in his own right; he has not denied a payment in the region of pounds 100,000. He has two tasks: to put his master's thoughts into good English and to urge him into indiscretion. That Heseltine has a tale to tell cannot be denied. Among the highlights of his career are the Westland affair in 1986; his stint as Secretary of State for Defence; and his challenge to Mrs Thatcher in 1990. He knows where the bodies are buried, and his publishers will be very peeved if they are not discovered. Heseltine will be obliged to follow John Major, whose own autobiography is due to be published in the autumn. The Heseltine book (there is as yet no working title - "So Near and Yet so Far"?) will appear in the spring of 2001.

Michael will go out of politics not with a whimper but with a bang. He has already taken advantage of the spat between Hague and Portillo. "I think William should be extremely concerned," said Michael, "about what lies behind the Portillo agenda. It is quite obvious that when Portillo comes back there is going to be a concerted campaign, in which newspapers like the Telegraph will play a significant part, to replace Hague with Portillo. It is as clear as any event in the future can be. The Tories are heading off in the wrong direction."

As a One Nation Tory in the tradition of Butler, Macmillan and Heath, Michael is angry about the way in which events have conspired to hijack the traditional Tory party. He has no time for Hague, a boy sent on a man's errand. Ever since his Oxford days, Michael has been a European idealist. Now he need not bite his tongue. It is time to embark upon his Midlothian campaign. Julian Critchley has been a Tory MP for 31 years