Tory Conference: Why `Mr Grumpy' wants to have the last laugh

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The Independent Online
THE FORMER Prime Minister had been doing a round of interviews for his book, and the signs were ominous. Dubbed "Mr Grumpy" in one newspaper, the man with the "longest sulk in history" was not suffering fools gladly.

His private office warned me off plunging straight in with questions about William Hague. It need not have worried. Ted entered his study in a canary yellow polo shirt with his famous sunny smile. His housekeeper offered tea - India or China? Ted settled down with a China tea and lemon. We launched into the political gossip, about Labour's week at Blackpool, and the coming week at Bournemouth for the Tories. He will be on the platform on Wednesday for the Europe debate, and is dismissive of the one hour allocated for such an important debate. "In my day, we would have had a full half-day," he said.

At 82, Sir Edward Heath has a remarkable depth of experience, and recalls in the book witnessing a Nuremberg rally in 1937 with Hitler. Afterwards there was an SS cocktail party at which he was introduced to some of Hitler's henchmen. Himmler had a "droopy and sloppy" handshake.

He returned, convinced the Nazis were far more dangerous than Britain realised, and agitated against appeasement in the Oxford Union. "It was an experience that dominated my politics," he says in his book. It forged his conviction in the European ideal.

For a recent television film of his life, he was taken back to the spot where he saw Hitler at the podium. Some of the programme was devoted to blunt questions about his private life and his unrequited love for an old flame from Broadstairs, and his lifelong friendship with Moura Lympany, the concert pianist. He has had a mailbag of letters, tut-tutting the rudeness of the questioning. "It was sex obsessed," he said.

He agrees to a photograph providing it is taken in the hall, like all the other stock shots, "for security reasons". He is persuaded to sit in his peaceful garden with the leaves already gold, wearing a pullover with a tennis club logo. "I was going to call the book The Last Laugh,' he said. "But they objected. They said the newspapers would want the last laugh. So I said I'm going to call the next one Everything I Left Out."

At precisely 6pm, as a bell chimed across Salisbury's Cathedral Close, he asked whether I wanted a gin, whisky, malt? He does things properly by the book. We settled down again to two stiff-ish whiskies.

Europe dominated our conversation as it had his life in politics. European Union has made a third European war seem inconceivable. "That doesn't alter the Germans' determination to keep their relationship with France. It was very noticeable that Blair thanked Kohl for all he had done then sent this message of congratulations to the new Chancellor and invited him over to the party conference, saying they would think the same way. It was very clumsy politics, because the Germans would not do that. His first visit was going to be to Paris."

Margaret Thatcher considered inviting Ted to be foreign secretary in 1979 in her first government. Andrew Alexander in the Daily Mail said she saw his "basilisk stare" and thought better of it. Would he have accepted? "Oh, yes ... but she never asked me."

Alexander also says Heath is not a Tory but a right-wing Socialist. The Heath shoulders convulse in one of his chuckles. "I don't think this Labour Party has got the right balance about society as a whole. Brown is talking about cuts in personal taxation but there are great difficulties with the health service. What they ought to emphasise is that there needs to be balance in society, what needs to be done. As it is, Blair is trying to be more Tory than the Tories.

"Blair seems to have got the attitude that he only got his majority by being more Tory than the Tories and he can only keep his position by being more Tory than the Tories. It's a strange psychological state."

Heath is a founder member of the Tory One Nation group, and believes Kenneth Clarke should have been the party leader, not Hague. "The present grouping in Parliament has swung to the right. But it was very foolish of him to link up [with John Redwood]."

Heath's One Nation torch- bearers are now relegated to the fringe. "Unfortunately in John Major's time when he said we must have a `Blue Sea' [clear blue water] between ourselves and Labour, as Labour moved more to the centre, we were pushed more and more to the right. Then at the time of the election, the people who survived had large majorities and were extremely right wing."

He sponsored Chris Patten, giving him his job as the head of research at Central Office in 1974, but has lost faith with him over his handling of Hong Kong. Ted, who met Mao and regularly visits Peking, thinks Patten "has changed". Michael Portillo has a similar generational problem in wanting the leadership - he could be too old before he gets a chance. "If they [Labour] win the next election, how old are they going to be in 10 years' time - 64 or 65 - and is this how they wish to spend the next 10 years?"

Having taken Britain into Europe, Heath would like to see it entering the first wave of the single currency. "From 1950 we had 22 wasted years. Now we're starting on the same path." He regards Hague's rejection of the single currency as "absurd - no businessman, no banker can say `I won't do this for 10 years'."

The split in the party is "all entirely unnecessary". He said the Opposition was acting as though it was still in government. He has not had a euro ballot form. "A chap said they had sent him three forms. It's very odd extending it [the ballot] for two days. It points to the fact they hadn't got many replies." The result of the ballot will be "meaningless - it won't impress anybody".