Michael Heseltine: ‘The adults are back in charge’

Michael Heseltine is a little late, his car detained by a slow-moving “handmaid’s march” protest in Piccadilly, staged by red-caped women. When he enters the restaurant, tall, unstooped, his famous mane swept back, diners’ heads turn. Hezza, “Tarzan”, Margaret Thatcher’s nemesis, is about to turn 90 but you wouldn’t guess it.

“A glass of Chablis, my lord?” says the waiter, ushering Heseltine to the table in Wiltons, an establishment restaurant in London’s St James’s. Heseltine assents, almost before he has taken his seat. “I don’t want any water, thank you. Wine is better.” He has been coming to Wiltons since the 1950s: it turns out it has also been the venue for some of the most momentous events of his life.

“Can you think of a more consequential British politician who has not been prime minister?” asked one senior British official when I mentioned I was having lunch with Heseltine. For more than 50 years he has been a key figure in British politics: pro-European, champion of Liverpool, the driving force behind Canary Wharf, toppler of Thatcher. He is now revered by a new generation as the Tory grandee who got the sack for resisting Brexit.

Heseltine quickly settles into his routine. A single glass of crisp Jean Durup Chablis, which he sips through the meal, is obviously an elixir. Any other secrets to a long life? “I sleep a lot,” he says. When he was deputy prime minister, his boss John Major would wake up early and agonise over negative press coverage. “He’d ring me early in the morning — I’d be asleep,” he chuckles.

He doesn’t dwell over the menu. “I like leek and potato soup a lot,” he says. He normally has plaice goujons but is forced to deviate: “They haven’t got plaice today, so I’ll go for some sole.” I order seafood from Devon, crab and smoked eel. But I’m not here for the food: Heseltine is a living history book and his memory is razor-sharp.

Heseltine first entered the nation’s consciousness in 1976 when — after a row with Labour over an alleged breach of protocol — he took the unusual step of grabbing the mace, the golden symbol of royal authority in the House of Commons, and brandishing it at his socialist opponents. Heseltine insists he was wielding the mace in “a very ordered way”, but that wasn’t how the cartoonists saw it. The blond, dashing Heseltine was forever after portrayed as Tarzan, king of the political jungle.

The incident was depicted in James Graham’s hit play This House, but Heseltine says he did not like the production because of all the swearing. “I was in the audience and I was asked if I would like to say a few words,” he recalls. “I was so shocked that I didn’t.” Heseltine exudes an old-school courtesy, although, he admits, that was severely tested when he joined Thatcher’s first cabinet in 1979.

So what was she like? “You had to stand up to her. She was very opinionated and there was no quarter given. She wasn’t someone who listened throughout and then replied. She would interrupt. If you wanted to survive as a cabinet minister, you had to wait until she paused for breath and then start again. Then she’d interrupt again.”

By now Heseltine, wearing his trademark blue V-neck under a dark suit, is tucking into his soup. “Delicious,” is his matter-of-fact verdict, delivered in a deep voice that bears the slightest hint of his Welsh origins: he was born in Swansea. Meanwhile, the Devon crab is sweet and moist, accompanied by thinly sliced avocado.

Thatcher and Heseltine were initially political soulmates. He was a self-made multimillionaire, having built up the Haymarket international publishing company, and she admired the dynamism he brought to government. In spite of being seen as the archetypal One Nation Tory, Heseltine recalls: “Actually, in government, I did more hard-right things than any other minister I know.” He says Thatcher told Michael Jopling, the then chief whip, that “she thought I was her natural successor”.

Heseltine pushed through a flagship Thatcher programme of selling social housing to local authority tenants — creating a new wave of capitalist Tory voters — and later went on to do battle with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as defence secretary. He reduced bureaucracy, privatised quangos and was generally seen as being in the vanguard of the Thatcherite revolution: “In my six years in her government, it was a very good relationship.”

It was during this spell that Heseltine, as environment secretary, established his reputation as a bold champion of the active state — or “levelling up”, as the current Tory government would call it. In his budget statement this week, chancellor Jeremy Hunt namechecked Heseltine as a trailblazer for urban regeneration. But the man himself believes today’s crop of politicians — hobbled by Treasury caution — have failed to embrace the model he devised to raise up broken communities.

Despite the Treasury saying that Liverpool was a lost cause — with talk of a “managed decline” — Heseltine devised in the 1980s an international garden festival to revitalise the port city, which had been devastated by industrial closures and scarred by riots, and which was in the grip of a hard-left local council that loathed Thatcher and her government.

Heseltine says, crucially, that the free-market Thatcher supported his efforts to use the government’s muscle to regenerate Liverpool and the East End of London, crushing Treasury opposition. “Margaret backed me,” he says.

The development corporations set up by Heseltine to resurrect Liverpool and the London docklands trampled on local democracy, sweeping away planning rules, cleaning toxic sites, making provisions for schools and creating certainty for investors.

Which gave him greater satisfaction? “Liverpool,” he says without hesitation. “There are not many Tory cabinet ministers who have been offered the freedom of the city,” he smiles. “It was the human dimension. The East End was derelict. You had 6,000 acres of dereliction. Reclaiming derelict land is a challenge, but it’s much, much easier than turning round — to use a phrase — derelict communities. Now I don’t like that phrase. But it’s basically communities that have lost their confidence.” Liverpool’s city centre docks are today one of the country’s biggest tourism and cultural sites.

Heseltine’s main course has now arrived: a portion of chips and a serving of tartare sauce accompanies his sole goujons. Heseltine proposed to his wife Anne in Wiltons; the couple married in 1962 and have three children. Did it come as a surprise when he proposed? “That’s for her to answer,” he says, somewhat taken aback by the question. “I don’t think so, no.” Meanwhile I tuck into three succulent eel fillets, accompanied by a tangy horseradish sauce and green salad, also washed down with Chablis.

Heseltine’s rise to Thatcher’s cabinet was unhindered by the fact he has dyslexia, although he says his time at Shrewsbury school, a fee-paying institution, was punctuated by reports saying: “Able, could do much better.” As a politician, he says his dyslexia actually helped. “What it made me do was take short-cuts,” he says. “For example, if I had a complicated situation, I would get the officials in the room and I would ask them what decisions they wanted me to take.” Instead of ploughing through sanitised reports, he said it opened up debate.

A key part of the Heseltine myth was that he supposedly sketched out his life plan on the back of an envelope: that by 25 he would become a millionaire; by 35, an MP; by 45, a minister; by 55, Downing Street. Only the last bit did not come off, but is the story true? “No, never,” he insists. “It’s so out of character with me.”

Nevertheless, Heseltine’s career was on an upward trajectory until, in 1986, he fell out spectacularly with Thatcher. The Iron Lady had become increasingly frustrated by the European project and what she saw as its leaders’ ambitions to forge a “superstate”, while other ministers such as Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe saw Britain’s future as intimately bound into the European club.

But the direct cause of his cabinet exit was a dispute over the future of Westland, Britain’s last helicopter manufacturer. Thatcher favoured an American tie-up, while Heseltine argued for a European solution. After Thatcher told Heseltine to stop making public comments on the issue, he walked out of the cabinet, past startled photographers and out of Downing Street.

What was Thatcher’s reaction? “Well, I walked out. I wasn’t going to stand around to see what the reaction was.” He pauses. “Shocked, I’m told.”

Four years later Heseltine stood against Thatcher for the Tory leadership, ending her 11 years in power. “I think I can honestly say that I never thought I would be prime minister,” he says. “I certainly would have liked to have been prime minister, but never in my inner self did I believe it would happen.” He says he was seen as too pro-European, too interventionist, to appeal to the Tory right.

He also admits he did not play the political game, refusing to hang around the House of Commons bars and tea rooms. He was seen by colleagues as aloof. “I took the simple view that success depends on doing a good job and getting results,” he says, “not because I sucked up to lots of people I don’t really have much in common with.”

In 1990 Thatcher quit after failing to convincingly see off Heseltine in the first round of voting in the Tory leadership contest. She insisted that her cabinet did not vote for Heseltine in the second round, and the low-key John Major emerged as the winner. Heseltine did bump into Thatcher occasionally after her defenestration, but says any conversation between the two was “very perfunctory”.

Heseltine went on to serve as Major’s deputy prime minister (refusing to stand against him in the 1995 Tory leadership contest), before being swept out of power in Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997. But Heseltine never disappeared from the political scene, re-emerging as an eminence grise to the youthful Tory prime minister David Cameron in the early 2010s, writing reports on how to regenerate Britain.

He also won a new generation of admirers for his trenchant contributions to the Brexit debate and his brutal takedowns of Boris Johnson, who inherited Heseltine’s old Henley parliamentary seat in 2001. Initially, relations between the two were “very cordial” but things went downhill during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. Johnson’s attempt to brand himself as a “Brexity Hezza” — a blend of Euroscepticism with Heseltinian “One Nation” Toryism — did not repair the breach.

Heseltine says Johnson’s decision to back Brexit was “superficial” and “opportunist”. Does he think Johnson actually believed in leaving the EU? Heseltine harrumphs: “I think he believed in Boris Johnson.” He says Johnson calculated that by endorsing Brexit he would win Tory admirers for a future leadership bid. “Unforgivable, but he got it right.”

Does he think Johnson and others lied to the British public? “The whole thing was a lie. The unforgivable thing about Brexit is that it was all phrases without any evidence, without any idea how to turn those phrases into actions.” Seven years later, Heseltine says the country is in the “intolerable” position of still waiting to see any benefits.

In 2017, after half a century of Tory service, he was sacked as a government adviser for insisting parliament should have a final say on any Brexit deal. He was in Wiltons with Anne when the message came through that the chief whip wanted to see him. They finished their dinner first. Heseltine later lost the party whip but says he is still a Tory member: he makes donations to the Scottish Tories, who he says are less Eurosceptic than their English counterparts.

He believes the Tories are now on a path back to political respectability after the “endless photo opportunity” of Johnson’s premiership, and that Rishi Sunak, the new prime minister, has shown a seriousness of intent in tackling problems, including striking a deal with the EU on Northern Ireland’s trading regime.

He says that while he does not agree with Sunak on Brexit, he can see that the prime minister is “getting down to the hard nitty-gritty of trying to work out solutions”. He adds: “The adults are back in charge.” It may be too late: the Labour opposition is currently 20 points ahead in most polls.

Heseltine says he is frequently invited to speak at universities, where his pro-EU speeches receive rapturous applause. But why does he think so many other oldies voted for Brexit? He sighs and says bluntly: “Race.” Heseltine, one of the first Tory MPs to oppose Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” immigration speech, says the issue remains toxic.

Does he think Britain will ever rejoin the EU? “I wish I wasn’t 90, because I would throw myself into the campaign,” he says, as the waiter clears our plates. Could it happen in his lifetime? He smiles: “When you’re 90, that’s always part of the agenda. But I think the answer is yes.”

We order coffees: a cappuccino for Heseltine, a double espresso for me. I ask him what he would like to be remembered for. He replies instantly that he is “hugely proud” of Haymarket, a family business that now employs 1,300 people around the world. He remains a director. But he says his ultimate legacy will be the 4,000 trees he has planted at his arboretum in Thenford in Northamptonshire, which has occasional open days for the public.

Our lunch is drawing to a close, but there is one last culinary surprise. “My lord,” says the waiter portentously, depositing a bowl of jelly babies in the middle of the table. Heseltine’s fingers hover over the sweets before sweeping in like a raptor. “Whenever I come, my jelly babies turn up,” he says.

He does not buy the idea that today’s politicians are a pale shadow of the “giants of the political world” he once served with in cabinet, figures such as Willie Whitelaw, Peter Carington and Quintin Hailsham. He says it is natural to look up to an older generation and impossible to feel the same way about a younger generation. “They’re as bright as we are and they’ll do as well,” he says.

But Heseltine’s thoughts are turning back to Thenford, far from the Westminster corridors and the political battles that he waged over 50 years. “The truth is, you can’t name a single politician of the 19th century, except a handful of prime ministers,” he says. “So they’ll remember me for my trees. Trees outlive us frail mortals.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

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