In the mood for optimism

Michael Heseltine senses an important shift in the nation's outlook, as he told Andrew Marr
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The Independent Online
There is something about the President of the Board of Trade that marks him out utterly from the rest of the Tory office-holding class. His age? No, though he is a rare, creased survivor from the heroic period of the Thatcher revolution, living on in a Cabinet of her political children. What really distinguishes him is his imperturbable, almost shameless self-assurance. In a Government wracked by despair and defeatism, he remains a monument to glossy optimism.

He cannot really believe the stuff he spouts about the Tories storming back to a fifth victory, one thinks. It is just a front, surely, a rather admirable piece of effrontery in the face of looming political disaster. Good old Hezza. Ho, ho.

And yet the difference is this - most ministers, talking to a journalist about the cheery prospects for Conservativism, convey the impression that they feel uneasy as they mouth the words. However soft the seat, they shift in it. They cannot quite keep up the pretence. With Heseltine, damn him, it's different: he makes the sceptical journalist feel uneasy - as though maybe he's right.

He carries it off. Who else could have declared that he wanted to be known as the President without being laughed out of Westminster? Well, we do snigger a bit. But President it is. And if the Tories do turn to him this year as their last election-winning hope, it will surely be for this quality above all. They will want him not for his experience or his oratory; they will want him for his cheek.

So, after a lengthy conversation with him, let it be recorded that the President is sure the tide is turning. All the economic factors are pointing the right way (he reeled them off; I won't) and so, more surprisingly, are the political factors, "but only recently''.

Furthermore, he said, public funds were moving to a position where legitimate tax-cutting was on the cards; that, plus higher productivity, low inflation and higher employment, would transform the mood within 18 months. It was all "very exciting''.

The shift in mood would have several consequences. First, the mood of the media would change, too: "The media reflects what their customers, buyers, readers are thinking and if the public perception is of jobs being lost, bankruptcies taking place and so on, editors will smell that and reflect it. If, on the other hand, there's a general feeling that the news is getting better, the media will reflect that.'' Labour would come under increasing challenge - indeed, that was already happening.

At the same time, the rise of triumphant Tory rebels, gaining hero status in front of the television cameras on Westminster's College Green, would reverse itself. "General elections focus people's minds and the heyday of rebellion and the College Green phenomenon passes. It becomes irresponsible undermining. The populist with his outburst becomes the disloyal wrecker ...''

But didn't he accept that everybody thought his party was played out? Time for a change? No, he said. By 1997, people would approach this in a different mood: "If the public mood has become benign, there's a reluctance to change, particularly to a party that has been out of power for so long.''

In the end, Heseltine is an economic determinist: "The essential thing is the mood change that follows from delivering the success in the economy.'' Everything else would then follow. And the change would happen suddenly and dramatically, because modern politics "has become incomparably more volatile". It was the same everywhere, in the United States, Canada and Europe - "look at Chirac in the French presidential elections". All that was needed was for the Government to keep its nerve.

So, though we were speaking before the Scottish local election results, assuming they and the English ones were dreadful, what would his message to the party be? "Try harder. Don't panic."

Did he agree that changing the leader would be a silly thing to do? The President, though quick to say they would win in 1997 "under John", seemed a touch reluctant to expand on the silliness of a leadership change.

"I have answered the question by saying the problems of the democratic leaders across the world are similar - they have had similar problems as our Prime Minister, and for similar reasons.''

So changing wouldn't help? "The media would focus on anyone in the same way.'' It would be silly to change? "Mm.'' (Plus nod.)

Looking at the pressures on a Prime Minister now, what did he think of the top job? All countries he knew about had moved "to a more presidential accountability - simply the exposure and the immediacy of news coverage has had that effect". Presidential? "The role of the Prime Minister has been accelerated and accentuated by the weight of government and the immediacy of government.''

So back to this President. He declined to trim. On the key question of the European Union, where his views worry so many on the Tory right, Heseltine portrayed himself as an undiluted enthusiast, though of a Gaullist stamp, repeatedly referring to the case for Europe as being based upon "the self- interest of the nation state". Despite recent events, had his views on Europe not changed? "They have not changed,'' he said firmly, "since I was at university.''

To test this, I tried him on the question of national sovereignty. Did he have a line in his mind beyond which it would be wrong to go? No, it seemed: "I don't believe you make progress by trying to define hypothetical circumstances in unknowable situations.''

So he was agnostic about whether European monetary union necessarily implied political union? "Let us see what the proposals are when the time comes.''

He argued that all the European nations were using the same criterion of national self-interest, though "they are inclined to sign up to the Euro-concept in theory, whereas we question the practicalities before we accept the concept". In the end, though, the political results were not very different. Everyone, the Germans, the French, ourselves, had the same basic attitude.

That might be true, I suggested, for the lites. But the Euro-sceptical point was that public opinion held a different view and was often over- ruled or ignored. The President did not seem impressed by this point. Public opinion, he replied, is very fickle. It was "always changing''.

So did that imply that he thought (unlike many Tories) that the mood of Euro-scepticism would swing back? He did. Why?

"Europe has lived through decades with two over-arching and converging forces. First, the threat of the Soviet Union and second, the broad assumption of economic prosperity, based on that long period of growth. Both those certainties have gone. As a result of the recession of the late Eighties and the economic changes, we have experienced a degree of uncertainty and there has been a search for explanations - and sometimes alibis.

"The European Union was a very obvious focus of that discontent, particularly when you take on board the huge indigestion of absorbing the harmonising changes that the [single market] Cockfield agenda required, and you couple it with the world-wide disenchantment with elected governments.''

So the current mood of scepticism about the EU would turn? "I think that that is absolutely the case.''

In our times, dominated politically by Euro-scepticism and deep hostility to the Conservative government, the idea that both trends will be reversed within a couple of years seems a hard one. It is a remarkable fact that Heseltine can not only predict this with a straight face, but can send one on one's way half-convinced. If no other medicine can work for the Tory disease, they know where to look for the faith-healer.

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