Michael Heseltine is destined to be remembered as the man who toppled Margaret Thatcher. As his biographer Michael Crick has commented, that is an inadequate way to sum up his legacy. It might be more serious-minded to recall him as the man who abolished the poll tax and devised its replacement, the council tax, an impost so inoffensive it has hardly been mentioned. That would also do him less than justice, however, as a piece of mere administration with no bearing on his central ambitions.
It would be more fitting for Mr Heseltine to be remembered as Britain's first and last Gaullist. He is a man who wants to leave monuments, from his arboretum at Thenford to the Millennium Dome and the linear expansion of London eastward along the Thames. He is a politician of the grand project, the champion of national - and European - prestige ventures such as Concorde, the European Space Agency and Westland helicopters.
Whatever the ultimate value to the nation of his legacy - and much of it must be rated doubtful - it cannot be denied that he will leave his mark. He opened the A40(M), the Westway, London's only elevated motorway. He twirled the Mace. His flamboyance made him a natural subject for cartoonists and satirists, bequeathing to the nation an unmatched collection of weak Tarzan jokes. And the legacy of his challenge to Mrs Thatcher was John Major's dismally long-lasting premiership.
However, he played a part in moderating some of the excesses of Thatcherism with which he was initially identified. He worked hard in Liverpool after the Toxteth riots to try to tackle the problems of inner-city deprivation. The models of partnership between public and private sectors that he devised there are now taken for granted. He took a large share of the responsibility for transforming another deprived urban landscape, in London's Docklands, as part of an even grander scheme - so grand as to be grandiose - for the east Thames corridor. That is some monument, but whether it represented the best use of public money must be doubted, even from this newspaper's vantage point in Canary Wharf.
But he is an attractive figure, with an engaging belief in the power of politicians to move mountains, including mountains of social misery. And he has an instinctive understanding of statecraft - something a bit grander than the mere politics practised by William Hague and Tony Blair.
His departure from the Commons at the next election will leave the Conservative Party looking smaller than ever.Reuse content