The Heseltine Interview

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Indy Politics
Anyone seeing Michael Heseltine surrounded by a scrum of pushing, shoving, heaving hacks, trying to stroll down the quaint high street of a country town in pursuit of votes, must wonder what madness it is that attracts grown-ups to politics. But the joy the Deputy Prime Minister gets from political campaigning is completely genuine.

"It's a rejuvenation process," he says, "you are going back to your roots; you realise where the master is in a democracy; you renew the mandate."

Relaxing in the Prime Minister's sitting room at Conservative Party headquarters, Mr Heseltine shows no sign of strain or fatigue after days spent on the road, campaigning.Working from 7.30am to 11.30pm each day, he knows how to pace himself. But like all professionals who have climbed high up the greasy political pole, he thrives on the change demanded by electioneering.

"Suddenly, from a ministerial world in which you have responsibilities and take decisions and issue instructions, which is the essence of government, you find you are applying for the job. You're back out there and you realise where the power really lies, and it's a very important part of the democratic process."

But there is much more to it than a pressing of the flesh and getting the blessing, or brickbats, of the electorate. Being the pro that he is, Mr Heseltine takes from the process a distillation of opinion that informs his judgement about what is going to happen when the votes are cast on May Day.

"You don't spend much time with them, but it's interesting how even the accumulation of a very large number of brief meetings creates an impact.

"If you hear the same phrase repeated, if you see the same smile, you hear the same criticism - whatever it may be - on a hundred different lips, you draw a conclusion from what effectively is a summary of hundreds of different encounters. It is one of the reasons why I believe the Conservatives are going to win, because out there, the warmth and the reception and the encouragement is genuine and widespread."

When he was in Wirral South for the by-election campaign, he confidently forecast that the Government would get a majority of 60 seats, and nudging upwards all the time. The Heseltine smile only froze for an instant when he was asked: "Which party?"

So was this where he got such confident assessments from? From his fleeting meetings, and warm smiles and reassuring words from encouraging lips? "Sixty seats and nudging upwards is an attitude of mind," he says with a huge grin.

Could it be that Mr Heseltine's confident precision about the next Tory government was nothing more than a guess? While not accepting that for a moment, he had the grace to concede that he had to put his head down and charge into battle. "It's the only way. If the Prime Minister had doubts, if I had doubts, everyone would know it; it would show. You can't lead from behind."

So it was possible that he had doubts. "I have no doubts." Yes, but if he had doubts, he would not show them, or voice them? "I wouldn't show them if I had them, but I haven't got them."

Yet he was quite certain that the Tories were going to win. How was that? "It has in a very important way been born of experience, because, having adopted this quite clear view about Tory prospects now for some 20 years, it has proved remarkably successful. It has always been right. So I'm sticking with it."

That is reasonable enough. The winning formula is, by definition, successful, so you stick with it. Until it loses. Then you come an awful cropper. There is no magic in it. But Mr Heseltine is right; there is something in the wind which many politicians can detect among the voters. He is encouraged by the large number of "don't knows" out in the constituencies he has visited on the campaign trail so far - including Tewkesbury, a Tory seat with a notional 9.4 per cent lead over the Liberal Democrats. What on earth is the Deputy Prime Minister doing campaigning in Tewkesbury?

The uncertainty of the voters, Mr Heseltine says, shows clearly that the Labour Party has not won converts, that "the thing is out there to play for".

"I'm encouraged by the fact that there are a large number of people there, prepared to think and be influenced," he adds.

They would be influenced by the big question: Who is to govern the country for the next five years?

"The Labour Party is going to find it increasingly difficult to sustain their chicken approach during the course of the whole campaign; the run- away approach. You can well understand why Tony Blair won't debate with John Major, because he'd get screwed to the floorboards."

New Labour was all transatlantic packaging. "Our task is to strip off the packaging and reveal the product. We've got weeks to do that. But it's interesting to see how once you do strip off the packaging, Labour becomes defensive and edgy; scared. We saw it on the unemployment figures; we saw it happen on the trade union issue."

While he might be guessing as to the majority, and his winning formula might not be as infallible as it has been for the past 20 years, there is no questioning his enthusiasm. Ask him about the policies and the excitement bubbles up and explodes in cascades of fireworks and glittering phraseology.

Talking of the Tory manifesto, he says: "Here is a comprehensive document addressing the real issues that face this country, against a background where this country has been literally transformed from the basket-case of 1979 into the part of Europe which everybody wants to emulate and share in. In my lifetime, there has never been such an exciting peacetime opportunity for this country as that which exists today in 1997."

The enterprise centre of Europe was being built about us, cities were being rebuilt with a vigour and imagination not seen since the days of Victorian England. And as for the arts, culture and sport, there was "no time in human history when we have devoted such money to building the infrastructure for that wider dimension of the quality of life. There is no precedent for it. At all. Ever." Amen.

All that remains is to fight the good fight, to count the votes, and to weigh the 60-seat majority. But for which party? There is no doubt that politics, as well as the arts, culture and sport, can be a lottery; someone has to lose, and it could as well be the Tories as Labour. Could Mr Heseltine admit that it happens? "Of course, in the end, you drop off the conveyor belt. But that, I am afraid, is built into the human condition."

But, if that happened, Michael Heseltine would have fought the good fight, he would have been in the thick of the scrum, a politician to his fingertips, a man who will fight like fury to the death. Or victory. And a man who will have loved every minute of it.