The hair apparent

OK, so Michael Heseltine never made it to Prime Minister. And by his own admission, William won't be asking him to join the Shadow Cabinet. But who cares when you're worth millions and can do a nice line in gardening tips?
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I am due to meet Michael Heseltine for lunch at the famous Wiltons restaurant on Jermyn Street, central London. I arrive early, and wait in the little reception area. Wiltons, I soon discover, is blissfully nobby, full of rich, titled elderly gentlemen in Burberry scarves and Aquascutum raincoats, whom the maitre d' welcomes with a: "How are you, my Lord?" And: "How nice to see my Lord today." And: "Would my Lord like a drink before lunch?" And then Mr Heseltine arrives. He is expensively suited, tall and impressive-looking, with that wonderfully extravagant, Lion King hair-do. (Mr Heseltine, I later ask, have you ever considered a £300 Beckham? "If I am following what you are saying, no. Although I'm not quite sure what a £300 Beckham, or even a £100 Beckham, might be.")

From the reception area, I stick a finger in the air, to indicate I am his date, so to speak. He doesn't say "hello" or "how are you?" or "that's a nice top. Miss Selfridge?". He is not especially known for his easy charm. Or small talk. He is not a schmoozer. He unseated Margaret Thatcher, yes, but failed to subsequently get the top job because, it is said, he couldn't sufficiently butter up enough MPs. Today, he simply inclines his head very slightly, indicating, I guess, that I should follow him. I do, trip-trapping behind him rather foolishly as he makes his way to what, I assume, is his table. I say: "I think you're the only person here who isn't a Lord. You're just a bit of rough, really, aren't you?" He says: "That was for your piece, and NOT FROM MY LIPS." He is not, I am beginning to suspect, easily charmed, either.

We order. Actually, no, we don't. He orders. He is gloriously masterful. He says: "Do you like smoked salmon? It's very good here. You'll have the smoked salmon. Do you like sole?" "Um... yes." "Grilled? Off the bone?" "Well..." "One sole, grilled and off the bone then." As an unshaved, socialist feminist who can read menus and order for herself, thank you very much, I am so utterly appalled by his chauvinistic behaviour that, should he ever ask me on a date again, I would have no option but to accept immediately. I do so adore a dominant male.

He orders potted shrimps, to be followed by steak and kidney pie. Hang on. Steak and kidney pie, I ask? Are you being naughty here, Michael? (He had a heart attack in 1993, followed by an angina attack four years later.) Will I get into trouble with your wife, Anne, if I allow you to go ahead? Is it on your diet sheet? "Yes," he barks. I wonder, if he had not had that angina attack after the Tory's defeat in the 1997 general election, would he have stood for leader? He says: "I don't think you can answer questions like that." I say come now, you must have thought about it. He insists: "No, No. I haven't. There is no point. If you lived your life running backwards, you'd never get on, would you?"

Getting on. Getting on has always, largely, been what he is about. There's even, of course, the famous envelope incident when, at Oxford, he is said to have sketched out his whole career on the back of one. Apparently this went: businessman, millionaire, MP, minister and, finally, not world ice-dancing champion as one might have hoped but, yes, prime minister. He got to be all of these things, except the last. Deputy PM under John Major was as high as he ever climbed. He affects that it doesn't matter. He says he doesn't mind that history will not go Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Heseltine... He says he doesn't even miss being someone who matters any more. "I loved the life and if it had gone on, I'd have been more than happy to continue it, but I don't think I do miss it. I'm very excited by what I'm doing now. All that was yesterday. Yesterday. Wonderful, exciting, privileged, but yesterday..."

OK, I say, what if William Hague were to suddenly offer you a place in the shadow cabinet? "He wouldn't." If he did? "He wouldn't. Our views on Europe are not compatible." Will Michael Portillo be leader, shortly, do you think? He smiles. He says: "I think William will win us the next election." He can't, I say. "That," he replies, "is possible of the view of a journalist on The Independent, but it is not possible of the view of a Conservative MP." He can be very cunning, in a naughty Francis Urquhart, House of Cards sort of way. Still, I find I'm enjoying the subtext to this conversation and push it further. Hague is rubbish, I announce. "I am so sorry we haven't brought you round yet," he says, smiling. He's not the "Tarzan" he used to be. Or the "Goldilocks". He is 67 now, and much more of a diminished "Greydilocks". Still, when he smiles, he has a certain something. Sexy? I'm not sure I'd go that far, frankly. Still, I probably wouldn't kick him out of bed. He might not let me have pudding!

Now he is back as chairman at Haymarket Publishing, the privately owned publishing house he co-founded in 1959 - and which publishes magazine titles such as Campaign, Marketing Week and now the biggest-selling internet magazine, The Net. Yes, Mr Heseltine can do e-mail and all that. Still, as it turns out, he is one of those hopelessly irritating people who phone you to say they've e-mailed you. I scold him for this. I say the whole point of an e-mail is that you don't have to make that phone call. He gets quite shirty. "I understand that is your view, but you see I'm a cautious fellow. If I press a yellow envelope on screen, how do I know it hasn't been devoured by gremlins in the basement of Haymarket? So I ring and I say: 'Did you get my e-mail?'."

Haymarket is the source of his considerable wealth, estimated at £200m. £200m! Are you ever horribly extravagant? "I suppose," he says, "you could point to one or two examples of extravagance." Which are? "We've bought some nice things." Like? "Well, pictures and furniture." Aha! So Alan Clark's remark was true! You are the sort of man who has to buy his own furniture! "I am indeed," he concedes. "But, then, someone always has to." His beginnings were relatively modest. He was born in Swansea, where his father managed a local steel works. But I think he's quite forgotten what it is like not to be rolling in it. When I later ask him what sort of thing he'd most like to buy for one of his homes - money and availability no object - he says: "What, aside from what we really need, you mean?" What do you really need, Mr Heseltine? "We need a pair of nice side tables for the dining room."

He and Anne live a spectacularly posh life, with an elegant house in London (Belgravia), a thatched cottage in the village of Exford (in the heart of the Exmoor National park), and a Palladian mansion in Northamptonshire. Here, he gardens ferociously, tending to his arboretum, the collection of 3,500 trees he began in 1977. The last tree he planted, he says, was "an Acer elegantulum", adding: "Get the species right. That's important." I say I will. I say I'll look it up. He says: "You won't find it. It's very rare." He can be divinely snobby. He's right, though. I can't find it in any book, and have to phone his secretary to check the spelling. Her name is Hilda. And I'm glad it is Hilda, because if it hadn't been, I might have been quite disappointed.

He is bossy, too. I tell him I bought a magnolia from Woolworths four years ago, under its "guaranteed to grow or your money back" scheme, but it's still just a twig. Is it too late to take it back, do you think? "Well, there might be a simple solution. When you planted it, was it bare root or potted?"

"Um... dunno."

"What did you do to prepare the soil?"

"Um... I just kind of bunged it in."

"Magnolias don't like that. They expect to be loved. I think you should dig it up. Carefully. Then you should dig a hole this wide and this deep (he indicates the measurements with his hands) and take the soil out and mix it with manure. If the soil looks awful, buy a packet of John Innes compost. Then put it all back in, replant the magnolia, and then you may find that tender loving care will bring its rewards."

Golly, I exclaim, this is brilliant. This is like being on my own personal Gardener's Question Time. Tell me, what should I do about my peach tree with leaf curl?

"Get a book and find out what spray you can use. Or go to the garden centre and they will doubtless provide you with something suitable."

"Do you have full-time help with your garden?"

"Eight staff."

"Eight! I'd be pretty cross if I were you, and I got leaf curl."

"So would I," he booms.

He first discovered horticulture at his prep school, where "each new boy was given a square yard of mud and a packet of seeds - Virginia stocks - and I was mesmerised by the conversion over about six weeks, from mud to a multifloral display."

He went on to Shrewsbury public school were he was an un-outstanding pupil. He suffers from mild dyslexia. "I just find it hard to absorb the written word." And he is tone deaf. "There was a humiliating experience when the choirmaster - after about 10 minutes of trying to get the house choir to sing in tune - asked us to open ranks. Then he walked up and down the ranks, stopped at me, and said: 'Ah, now I know what the problem is.' I was not allowed to sing again." Heavens, tone deaf and dyslexic. You weren't much of a catch, were you? "That has always been my view," he confirms.

After Oxford - Oh, by the way, Mr Heseltine, I suppose I ought to ask you if you had any gay experiences there? "You may ask and the answer is NO!" - he first made serious money in property, by investing a small legacy in a run-down Notting Hill boarding house. Within five years, he owned a Bayswater hotel and a property in south Kensington and was being driven around by a chauffeur. He is obviously a brilliant businessman, so why politics? "I can't answer that. I was walking down one of the main streets in Swansea in 1951, to meet some friends for a coffee, and I just saw this sign saying: 'Swansea West Conservative Association Headquarters, Henry Kirby, candidate', and I crossed the road and said: 'Can I help?'." What if, that day, it had been the Socialist Workers Party headquarters, instead? "I would have crossed the road and walked in the other direction. Your sole was good, was it not?" He is, I think, a man who likes to impose his will on others. Indeed, now I think about it, how could he not have become a politician?

Frustratingly, he isn't especially keen on picking over his own political career in detail, as his autobiography comes out in September. Still, we have quite a nice spat about New Labour. He says: "They want to be liked, and that is a terrible weakness in government. You can't achieve results just by pleasing people as measured by focus groups." Hang on, I protest. You hated Thatcher because she didn't give a toss about being liked, wouldn't listen to anyone. You can't have it both ways. He says: "But this Government is driven by Tony Blair's certainty he is right. He shares this with Mrs Thatcher." So why the focus groups? "Because that's how he decides what is right. But if you take Thatcher and Blair, and ask 'where are all the ideas coming from?', you get very different answers." Which answers do you get then? He pauses. "That will be in my autobiography."

We end up going back to gardening. I tell him that last year I planted an allium and...

"One allium?" he interrupts.

"Yes, now I planted this..."

"Just the one allium?" he repeats, disbelievingly.

"Mr Heseltine. Not all of us have 50 acres, you know. Now do you want to hear this story or not?"

"I understand, but you can't plant one allium."

"I did."

"Well, I suppose it would be forgivable as an experiment."

"Anyway, it was growing brilliantly when my son's football smashed it to bits, and I burst into tears." He sighs sympathetically. He says: "Yes, I used to have pheasants and they got my alliums. So we got rid of the pheasants. I also had ducks and geese and swans, but their feet trampled everything and they had to go. We are back to just three white peacocks now."

"Only three! Well, I suppose that's forgivable as an experiment!"

It's time to wind up. I follow his brisk march out of the restaurant. "Goodbye, sir. Goodbye, madam," chorus all the waiting staff. I tell him people don't usually call me "madam". I say we should go out more often. I say, would you consider becoming my walker? "No," he says, before bolting off down Jermyn Street, mad hair bobbing. I think he's just playing hard to get, frankly. I think, if there is a next time, I might even get to have a pudding.