Michael Heseltine: the great survivor who's still lording it over the political jungle in his ninth decade
Martin Hickman finds that the politician still has plenty to say about the economy – and Rupert Murdoch
Following stints with Reuters and the Press Association, Martin Hickman joined The Independent as a news editor in 2001. He became the Consumer Affairs Correspondent in September 2005 and has run the paper's trenchant campaigns on packaging, bank charges and factory-farmed chicken. He writes on subjects as diverse as food, finance, energy and fashion. With Tom Watson, he is author of a new book on the phone hacking scandal, Dial M for Murdoch - News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain.
Monday 25 March 2013
Michael Heseltine still resembles his 1980s nickname, “Tarzan”. His hair – having triumphed in a battle against time – is voluminous and flamboyantly swept back from his forehead in a familiar wave. He is physically imposing; his manner authoritative and brisk, the seriousness broken only by the twinkling of his eyes and an occasional, wolfish smile.
His townhouse in Belgravia is stuffed with mahogany and paintings and is reminiscent of the residences of scheming politicians in the Thatcher-era BBC dramas Yes, Minister and House of Cards.
Only a beep from a mobile phone hidden in the breast pocket of his smart navy suit signals the 21st century. Aged 80, the political veteran is currently negotiating with the Coalition over the response to his report on stimulating regional growth, "No Stone Unturned". In last week's Budget, George Osborne accepted 81 of his 89 "bold ideas".
34 years after he joined Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet and 16 years after he left John Major's as Deputy Prime Minister, Heseltine is still a big beast in the political jungle.
He has an office in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in Victoria Street, near Westminster, a short chauffeur-driven ride away, where he has been advising the Government on economic regeneration in cities – a task he took on after the Toxteth riots in Liverpool in 1981.
He is also active in business, chairing the board of the company that controls one of Britain's biggest publishing groups, Haymarket, which owns MediaWeek, Management Today and dozens of other titles. The company, which he founded in the 1950s soon after leaving Oxford University, has given him a fortune running into many millions of pounds; probably more than £200m.
As one of only a few politicians to scale business as well as politics, "Hezza" is well-placed to expound his views on the downturn. Asked whether it is essential the economy improves, he replies – somewhat surprisingly: "It's not essential. It doesn't need to. It can go on drifting down.
"There is no God-given rule saying you've got to have a well-performing economy. It could be an indifferent economy. It's a question of whether the national will is there; whether we want it. And the richer you get the less imperative there is. Maybe one of the problems of advanced economies is that people are sufficiently well-off that they don't need to drive themselves anymore."
Pressed whether the problem, then, is lack of desire, he agrees: "It could be". But then – perhaps aware how his remarks may come across – he stresses that he is not blaming affluence, merely raising it as a possibility. Lacking desire is not an accusation that could be levelled at Heseltine, now entering his ninth decade.
Born into an upper-middle class family in Swansea in 1933, he propelled himself first through Oxford, where he was president of the union (and reputedly sketched out his life on the back of an envelope, becoming prime minister in the 1990s), and then business and politics.
After running graduate-recruitment magazines and other publishing ventures, and a disastrous spot of property development, he entered the Commons as MP for Tavistock in Devon in 1966.
He served in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet for seven years, first as Environment Secretary, where he popularised the sale of council housing, and then as Defence Secretary, where he countered the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and agreed the Euro-fighter programme.
He then, spectacularly and very publicly, fell out with Mrs Thatcher, over the future of a loss-making helicopter company in Yeovil. Heseltine, an industrial interventionist, wanted Westland to be saved by a European bid backed by British Aerospace, while Thatcher backed Sikorsky – possibly as payback for US help during at the Falklands War.
Whatever Thatcher's motivation, she refused Heseltine the opportunity to discuss the bids at Cabinet on 9 January 1986 and he famously stormed out.
Leon Brittan, the Trade and Industry Secretary, took the blame for leaking an unflattering phrase about Heseltine ("material inaccuracies") from an otherwise supportive letter from the Solicitor General. The Sun called Heseltinea "liar".
Asked for his opinion of Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper's proprietor, he says: "Undoubtedly he did make a major contribution at Wapping; there's no doubt about that... he does have too much influence." He adds: "I think the sacking of [Times editor] James Harding raises a lot of questions."
However, he bears no-ill-will towards Brittan, believing him to have been acting on instructions from No 10 – which concurs with Brittan's account that he had "express approval" for the leak. Heseltine says: "I've always liked and admired Leon and we remain friends to this day."
To a modern audience, Westland appears to have been a strangely arcane row to claim the scalps of two Cabinet ministers, but Heseltine believes he would have been "buried" by the Prime Minister if he had not stormed out. "My position would have been intolerable if I had stayed and it would have been exploited by those who disliked me or disapproved of me, or who were frightened of me," he says.
His eyes come alive when it is suggested that after his departure the Thatcher government was increasingly beset by difficulties, such as the unpopular poll tax, which ultimately led to her ousting in 1990. "What you probably don't know was the item that was second on the agenda on the Cabinet from which I resigned – the poll tax!"
He is now Baron Heseltine of Thenford in the County of Northamptonshire in the House of Lords, and intent on using his experience to help revitalise the economy.
Looking back on the post-war period, he blames dogma from both the left and the right for failing to encourage industry.
For decades, he says, successive governments had no effective industrial policy and left "market forces to prevail without any attempt to support swathes of the British economy."
He reflects: "What I did in the 1980s was create a partnership between the public and private sectors and I think that [has] continued."
Finally, amid polls showing their support to have slumped, what does he think will be the fate of the Tories' Coalition partners at the next general election? He replies: "It's not my job to worry about the Liberal Democrats."
Then, with a flash of his wolfish smile, he is off to take an important phone call.
80 not out: a colourful innings
Born Swansea, 21 March 1933.
Educated Shrewsbury School then Pembroke College, Oxford.
Career After failed attempts to become an MP, he focused on business, building a housing estate in Tenterden, Kent, and launched magazine publishers Haymarket. Eventually elected MP for safe Tory seat of Tavistock, Devon. Promoted to Government in 1970 by Ted Heath, rising to the Department of Industry in 1972. Appointed Environment Secretary in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher and sent in as "troubleshooter" after the 1981 Brixton riots. Resigned in 1986 after becoming involved in a dispute over helicopter company Westland. From the backbenches, plotted a failed leadership bid in 1990. In 1992 he was appointed Trade and Industry Secretary. Suffered a "severe" heart attack in 1993. Became Deputy Prime Minister to John Major in 1996 before he declined to stand for Conservative leadership. Resigned his seat in 2001.
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