The man who would - and should - have been prime minister

'The sobriquet "Tarzan" was well judged. Heseltine was a showman in a trade that needed style'
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Michael Heseltine's decision to leave the Commons is sad news. His departure will leave a gap in public life and a void in the Conservative Party. He is one of those politicians - like Herbert Morrison and Rab Butler - who never became prime minister but only just missed that goal. They are a very distinguished club, more impressive than many who made the path to Downing Street.

Michael's decision, none the less, is wise. To leave the stage is perhaps the hardest act for Westminster's thespians. He has done well to take note of the lacklustre sunset career of his political hero, David Lloyd George. He hung on after his loss of office in the Twenties, becoming a mere shadow of his former political dominance.

That fate will not overtake Michael Heseltine. His business skills are as sharp as ever and he has his beloved country home with its arboretum. These will provide greater satisfaction than involvement in a Conservative Party which he probably views with some despair and occasional disgust. Even so it will be by his politics that Michael Heseltine will continue to attract attention.

Firstly, he will be remembered as an action politician. The sobriquet "Tarzan" was well judged. He was a showman in a trade that needed style. His oratory, carefully rehearsed, outclassed that of his Tory colleagues. He spoke with authority in the Commons, but above all he was the master of the Conservative conference. The powerful but modulated voice would impart equally vision and denunciation to the faithful. It made them feel good and they loved him. He was also a sharp combatant and probably did not enjoy as much affection from his Labour opponents as one would expect given his centrist policies.

One episode will always be linked with his impetuosity. In a late-night parliamentary brawl he picked up the mace, claiming that he was going to hand this symbol of authority to the Labour members, as they were determined to have totalitarian power. He quickly repented of his constitutional innovation and apologised to the House next morning.

Heseltine's politics were influenced by Edward Heath and by his own generation represented by Peter Walker. He had a managerial view of society and little patience with the growing number of Tories for whom the market economy and its liberal values were the hallmark of Conservatism in the Seventies. He contrasted his pragmatism with their alleged ideology.

As a member of the Thatcher government he did much to widen private ownership with council house sales, but he was as happy in emphasising the intervening role in government in the creation of enterprise zones and the post-riot developments in Liverpool. As Secretary of State for the Environment he was able to pursue his problem-solving, or managerial, Conservatism without involving Margaret Thatcher in too much conflict.

That was not to be when he moved to be Secretary of State for Defence. This post engaged his deepest principle, namely support for full-hearted British membership of the European Community. That was the issue that lay at the heart of the dispute over the Westland helicopter deal. Heseltine felt he had been elbowed aside in the negotiations, and also the decision to go for an American rather than a European partner was profoundly mistaken. He thought it was a resigning issue, and so he departed with great style.

The European debate has continued and shows little sign of settling into relative political calm. Heseltine was one of the most determined proponents of British membership of Europe. He outshone Geoffrey Howe and Douglas Hurd notwithstanding their mastery of the intricate provisions of the treaties that increasingly bound Westminster to Brussels. Heseltine probably came close to being a British Gaullist rather than seeing the United Kingdom as a link between America and Europe.

I suspect Heseltine's European view, like his domestic political attitude, was managerial. Essentially he was a Euro-fixer. He believed that effectively the future of the European Union lay with the Franco-German partnership and that Britain should convert it into a triumvirate. To that end it was essential that Britain should show its European credentials by joining the euro.

After Heseltine left the cabinet his political behaviour was shrewd and well-judged. His quarrel with Margaret Thatcher over the style and content of her government was well known. It needed no repetition. He concentrated his political fire upon the Labour Party. This he did exhaustively at the supper events provided by Tory activists. It was an adroit tactic. His home-spun Evangelism evoked a warm response and he avoided the snares of speaking to hostile audiences in the Commons.

This political investment did not yield the results expected by many. When Margaret Thatcher was ousted from leadership, the Conservative parliamentary party did not turn to Heseltine. There was a mood to choose a leadership more in the emollient character of Stanley Baldwin rather than the dynamic personality of Michael Heseltine. John Major benefited from this mood. He was a circumspect leader and Michael Heseltine served him loyally. We now realise also the extent to which ill-health has restricted his political work.

What now for Heseltine, having departed from the Commons? One wonders if he will occasionally desist from tending his trees and arboretum to offer sage comment. My guess is that he could warn of the danger, as he sees it, of Britain seeking a free-trade rather than an integrated partnership with Europe. In my view, as a Euro-sceptic, that would be a siren voice. I would strongly reject it, but I would still like to have it heard. Politics currently lack character and colour. If Michael Heseltine does decide to give priority to his arboretum, I hope he will think again and reflect that Gladstone is remembered for his denunciation of the Turkish massacres and not for his work on the Woodlands estate at Hawarden.

The writer was in the Conservative government Cabinet, 1979 to 1987

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