In 2017, for the first time in his 52-year political career, Michael Heseltine was sacked from the government. As the Tory peer ate dinner with his wife on 7 March, the Conservative Chief Whip called to inform him that he had been removed from his five advisory roles for supporting a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal. And so, at the age of 83 (he turned 84 a fortnight later), Heseltine became one of the oldest rebels in history.
“I’ve only really fought my party on three big issues,” the former deputy prime minister reflected when we recently met at his office in Victoria, London. “The first was when they proposed to vote against the race relations legislation in 1968. I refused to do that and three weeks later my party changed its mind. I fought against the poll tax and got rid of it; no one wants to bring it back. And I voted to give parliament the ultimate power over the Brexit negotiations – and the government has now come round to that view. So there is a pattern to my revolts.”
Outside of government, Heseltine remains immersed in the world of ideas. On his desk were the historian Michael Burleigh’s new book, The Best of Times, the Worst of Times, and a 76-page report that Heseltine recently wrote on industrial strategy. “There is an essential partnership between the public and private sectors upon which modern commerce and industry depend,” he writes.
Heseltine, who co-founded the Haymarket Media Group (which accounts for the bulk of his £300m fortune) and who served in the cabinet for 13 years, understands that dynamic better than most. He has a fondness for state intervention and grands projets more typically associated with French Gaullists and German Christian Democrats than British Conservatives. In 2012, he was moved to tears when he was awarded the Freedom of Liverpool for his pivotal role in regenerating the city after the 1981 Toxteth riots. For these reasons, among others, the man who tried and failed to succeed Margaret Thatcher in 1990 is often described as one of the greatest prime ministers Britain never had.
Cartoon: Ralph Steadman
As we spoke, Heseltine measured his words with care, often pausing for as long as 40 seconds before answering my questions. His blue eyes twinkled with mischief and his trademark leonine mane was still visible.
Heseltine praised the government’s recent white paper on industrial strategy but did not disguise his fundamental disagreement with his party: “The single best thing to advance the industrial and commercial interests of our country would be to abandon Brexit. That is the thing that would have the most immediate economic effect, if only putting us back on the growth trajectory of our European neighbours”.
Like his fellow Conservative Ken Clarke, Heseltine is a member of an endangered species: the Tory Europhile. When I interviewed him shortly before the EU referendum in April 2016, he maintained that the UK would eventually join the single currency.
After the Leave vote, does he believe that Brexit can be stopped? “I think public opinion will change. There are signs that it is shifting already,” he said. “As it shifts, the Labour Party will shift.”
The Conservatives, he suggested, could follow. “The Tory party is the most sophisticated political machine in democratic politics. It’s interested in power and, in the end, it always puts that at the top of its agenda. So if it sees public opinion remorselessly moving, the Tory party will have to find a way, and it will find a way, of embracing that.”
Heseltine has calculated that the demographic shift from “the elderly who are dying to the young who are emerging” is worth an extra 800 Remain votes in every parliamentary constituency each year.
How he would he act if forced to choose between Brexit and a Jeremy Corbyn government? He chuckled with amusement. “I have a cop-out answer: I don’t have a vote!” (Peers are barred from voting.) But his tone swiftly turned more grave. “I can tell you, there are serious numbers of Conservatives who are aware of the danger of that question. But you can’t hypothesise about the impossible. I am a member of the Conservative Party and I intend to remain a member.”
Did he consider leaving the party over Brexit? “No, never. Parts of my party have left me, but there are large parts of it which have not. And I’m extremely moved by the scale of support that I get every day, wherever I go.”
At the age of 84, Heseltine maintains the work rate of one much younger. And he dismissed any possibility of retirement. “What would I do? What would I get up in the morning for? Or perhaps I don’t bother to get up. I make no special claim for it, I simply cannot contemplate doing nothing…Yes, it’s slightly harder to face the cold winds than it used to be. But when I have faced them, I feel the better for having been out there.”
He spoke with melancholy of the generational schism that Brexit has exposed (71 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Remain, while 64 per cent of the over-65s voted Leave).
“It saddens, particularly because it’s so true. You can’t help but have sympathy for an elderly community around whom the world is changing faster than it ever has before.”
But he said he was “on the side of the young. It’s their future, and the more you watch and listen and talk to them, the more you see they are assimilating these changes and prospering from them. Sadly, in the Brexit context, yesterday prevailed. But yesterday can’t stop tomorrow.”
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special