Self-made multimillionaire, former president of the board of trade, “Tarzan”, deputy prime minister, freeman of the city of Liverpool – Michael Heseltine could reasonably spend all his time reflecting on a public life well lived. But at the age of 81, the Conservative peer retains the energy and lucidity of a man two decades younger.
When I met him one recent afternoon in his office at the Treasury, he’d just acquired full control of Haymarket, the publishing group he founded in 1957 and that earned him his fortune of an estimated £250m. “The Heseltines now own 100 per cent of the company, which is a very nice thing to do,” he said, hair swept stylishly back.
Heseltine acquired his Treasury berth through the patronage of the cities minister, Greg Clark, whom he is advising on one of his own greatest political causes – urban renewal. After calling for a localist revolution in his 2012 growth report No Stone Unturned (81 of whose 89 recommendations were accepted by the coalition), Heseltine declared himself “a great enthusiast” for the government’s approach.
“Greg Clark has achieved what I think is almost certainly a unique thing,” he said when we met. “He has had detailed discussions about a local regenerative economic plan with the local enterprise partnerships of every part of England.
“I don’t think any minister has ever done something like that before.”
Following George Osborne’s much-lauded Budget, Heseltine is confident of Conservative success in the 2015 general election. “The strategy is clear and very well articulated – it’s basically a survival policy from the economic disasters of the last five years. The strategy is on course and, from the government’s point of view, it’s not only on course economically, it’s on course politically. I think this government, in one form or another, will survive. I think David Cameron will be the next prime minister. I wouldn’t predict whether he will win an outright majority or be in coalition, but I think he will remain prime minister.”
What of Ed Miliband’s leadership? “I don’t think Ed Miliband will be prime minister. I have not believed that from day one. I think the Labour Party made a mistake in choosing Ed as opposed to [his brother] Dave, but that’s not my business, it’s theirs, and if they think they’ve got it right . . .”
Heseltine served as a Conservative MP for 35 years, 13 of which he spent in cabinet. Had it not been for his dramatic resignation from the government over the Westland affair in 1986, he would almost certainly have broken Rab Butler’s record as the longest continuously serving cabinet minister since the Second World War.
If, as Heseltine expects, Cameron remains in Downing Street after the next general election, a referendum will be held on Britain’s membership of the European Union, the institution to which he is so committed. When we discussed Europe, he dismissed Cameron’s offer of a public vote as an act of party management. “Cameron is leader of a party and all parties are coalitions and he has to make a balanced judgement,” he told me. “I believe in Britain’s self-interest being pursued through a European agenda; I’m not in favour of referenda on this or any other subject. I know perfectly well that the only referendum we had on the subject was to get Harold Wilson out of a mess in 1975: it wasn’t a strategic ‘we must consult the people’ activity, it was because he had a split party and the only way to reconcile that was to have a referendum.
“It’s a time-honoured device, but my party criticised it at the time. And I still, in perhaps a rather naive way, believe the things today that I believed 30 or 40 years ago.”
What’s more, he said, “Europe is not an issue of burning public interest. On the salience of public opinion this is way down the Richter scale. It is perfectly true that we have some newspapers and a small coterie of politicians for whom this is the be-all and end-all of life, but that is not reflected in the Bull and Bush in Blackburn where these things are determined.”
Heseltine vowed at the 1992 Conservative conference to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner” to promote British industry (and to “get up next morning to start again”); he also believes that a referendum now on continued EU membership would have a “chilling effect” on business. “It will. This will be one of the arguments, an important argument. And industry is beginning to say it . . . serious industrialists and our allies – America, Germany – are beginning to express their concerns. This will become a much more articulate debate as time goes on.”
He continued, “What would be quite amusing is to collect the headlines and speeches from the last three years. They tell their own story: they [the Eurosceptics] have a dream, which is to get out of Europe; they use the dream to create the headlines and the headlines turn out to be rubbish . . . If you think what they predicted was going to happen to Europe as a result of the euro . . .Day after day, week after week, in the small print, I read Mr [George] Soros is now putting billions back into the Spanish economy. I’d rather trust him.”
Does he think Britain will join the euro? “Oh yes, one day, one day. We have resisted all these European ventures in my life. We tried to keep out in Messina in 1955 [the conference that led to the creation of the European Economic Community]. That was a very bad decision. Then we joined on terms which were not to our liking but were the best we could get.
“But we tried to compete with them with Efta [the European Free Trade Association]. Now, of course, virtually the whole of Efta has joined the European Union. Margaret Thatcher was no European but she signed the biggest sharing of sovereignty in British history, called the Single European Act. She was quite right to do so.”
Showing his scorn for Nigel Farage and Ukip, which Heseltine mockingly calls the “UK Isolationist Party”, and recalling that he was “the first Conservative to criticise Enoch Powell”, he compared Ukip to parties of the far right past and present.
“The racial overtones that are within the Ukip movement have got the same motivation [and] psychological impact as Mosley in the Twenties and Thirties, as Powell in the Sixties, Le Pen in France, the hard right in Holland and in Germany. It’s all the same stuff.” He stands by his description of the party last year as “racist”. “There is a racist undertone, there’s no question about it.”
The politician with whom Heseltine is most often compared is the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who succeeded him as MP for Henley and who shares his voluminous mane of hair, overweening ambition and love of grand projects.
At the mention of Johnson, Heseltine beamed with the pride of a father. “Ah, Boris! I’m a great fan of his. I was actually sitting on Andrew Neil’s television programme on the morning when [the BBC political editor] Nick Robinson was coming to talk about some political controversy of the day, and he said: ‘Before I tell Andrew about this, you should know that Boris Johnson is to be the new Mayor of London.’ And I said, ‘Wow, great!’ He’s a big guy, a big politician. He’s won London for the Tories, and in a bad downturn that’s quite an achievement.”
After Cameron’s declaration that he wants Johnson back “on the pitch”, there is speculation in Westminster that the mayor could return to parliament in 2015, leaving him free to stand in any post-election Tory leadership contest. But Heseltine, who failed in his ambition to become prime minister after the fall of Margaret Thatcher (“He who wields the knife never wears the crown,” he presciently told New Society in 1986), advises Johnson to bide his time and complete his second term as mayor.
“He’s obviously going to fight to help Cameron to win, and so he should. I’m totally convinced that he will do everything he can. I think, if I was him, I would be inclined to say: ‘I was elected to be mayor of London until 2016; I gave my word to London; I will stick with my word.’ I think that Boris, in his own interests, and he’s fully entitled to see it in his own interests, wants to leave a mark of reliability and dependability and trust and keeping faith with London. After all, it’s 20 per cent of the electorate. That would be an important thing in that calculation. I think he can do everything he needs to do to help the Conservatives. And of course whenever he wants to come back to the House of Commons, he’ll get a seat.”
Does he think Johnson would make a good prime minister? “I’m not going to get involved in trying to speculate on that,” he said. “He will certainly be a candidate, and a perfectly credible candidate, but there are other candidates and one or two obvious people have got very considerable qualifications as well. I’m not going to get involved in being on one side or another. I’m pleased that the Tory party has such a rich seam of talent available to it whenever David Cameron decides to go, which I don’t think will be for some time.”
As Heseltine reaffirmed his faith in Cameron’s premiership, I was reminded again that, assuming he is in good health, he will soon join one of the toughest battles of his life: to keep Britain in the European Union. But the greatest Tory Europhile of his generation does not even contemplate defeat.
“When people start measuring jobs and their leisure activities, the convenience of Europe, the stability of Europe, the peace of Europe . . . It’s in the early days: it’s 50 years, which is nothing in the blink of a historic eye. But in terms of the thousand years of European history, we’ve had 50 years of peace – and that’s not a bad achievement.”
George Eaton is the editor of the New Statesman’s politics blog The Staggers