Man who dared to challenge the regal Thatcher

Paul Waugh
Saturday 17 August 2013 01:15

Whether you called him Hezza, Tarzan or plain old Goldilocks, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine is one of the great showmen of British politics.

From his flowing blond mane to his rousing oratory, the swashbuckling businessman-turned-Cabinet minister was a star turn at Tory conferences and Wesminster alike.

Ever since he heckled Aneurin Bevan when he unsuccessfully fought the seat of Gower in 1959, Mr Heseltine has proved himself an energetic minister and passionate advocate of the pro-European Tory cause. He first entered the House of Commons as MP for Tavistock, Devon, in 1966, before moving to Henley in 1974, the Oxfordshire seat he has represented ever since.

As an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Oxford, he mapped out his political career on the back of a crumpled envelope. For the 1990s he simply wrote: "Downing Street". But, despite being the man who toppled Margaret Thatcher, he never made it. Partly because of his reputation as the assassin, partly through health problems, partly through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was not to be.

He has rarely been out of the headlines, first rising to national attention when he seized the Commons Mace and swung it about his head in protest at Labour MPs singing "The Red Flag". Nicknamed Tarzan by the tabloids, he went on to tackle inner city squalor as Secretary of State for the Environment. He attacked Greenham Common protestors with similar relish as Secretary of State for Defence before the Westland helicopter crisis saw him quit the Cabinet in 1986.

Mr Heseltine finally got his chance to challenge for the leadership in November 1990 after Sir Geoffrey Howe made his devastating resignation speech in the Commons. Polling the votes of 152 Tory MPs to Mrs Thatcher's 204, insufficient for her to win an overall first ballot victory, he forced her to resign. John Major won the subsequent contest, rewarding Mr Heseltine with jobs from Secretary of State for the Environment to Deputy Prime Minister.

His hopes for the top job were finally dashed when he suffered a heart attack in Venice in June 1993 and further heart-related illness after the 1997 general election.

As a backbencher he has infuriated William Hague by appearing with Tony Blair at a Britain in Europe rally. His Euro-enthusiasm prompted attempts to unseat him from Henley and, at last year's Tory conference, right-wingers heckled him and threw peanuts.

The big beast of the Tory jungle does, however, have one more trick up his sleeve. His autobiography will be published in September, just ahead of the party conference.

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