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Interview: Michael Heseltine

To his enemies he is an assassin, but he still denies ever intending to wield the knife. Michael Hes

Had Michael Heseltine not stormed out of cabinet and resigned as secretary of state for defence over the Westland affair in 1986, it is almost certain he would have been the longest continuously serving cabinet minister since the Second World War. Assuming – and it’s a safe bet – that Heseltine would have survived under John Major, he would have been in high office for 18 years, beating Rab Butler’s 13-year run.

Instead, after his resignation, there was feverish speculation that the maverick Tory was planning a leadership challenge from the back benches. It is a charge that Heseltine, 75 but as combative and articulate as ever, denies to this day. Sitting with his arms crossed and almost motionless throughout the interview at his Haymarket publishing offices in Hammersmith, west London, Lord Heseltine describes the moment he decided to stand for the leadership.

“It was when Geoffrey Howe made that speech,” he says, referring to the then deputy prime minister’s devastating Commons resignation speech in November 1990. Howe had said that ministers’ attempts to deal with Europe under Thatcher were “rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. Within three weeks, and after a one-by-one cabinet showdown that Thatcher called “treachery with a smile on its face”, the prime minister had resigned.

“I never assumed there would be a challenge,” Heseltine says now. A touch disingenuous? He was never quite accepted by the old grandees – Willie Whitelaw called him “the sort of man who combs his hair in public” – but he played brilliantly to the gallery. During his backbench years, so assiduous was his courting of the Tory grass roots on the rubber-chicken circuit that, to many, it seemed a question of when, not if, he would challenge. Ardent Thatcherites accuse him of plotting this all along, even choreographing his seemingly spontaneous exit from office. Heseltine is having none of it. “I always assumed that whoever became the next leader of the Conservative Party would bring me back.”

"My relationship with her was a very good one - in the sense that you're not friends in government"

The eventual victor, John Major, did indeed do so, first at Environment and then as the pompously titled “President of the Board of Trade”. Although Heseltine remained a conference favourite and a peerless rallier of the troops, one sizeable wing of the party would never forgive his role in the defenestration of their heroine. A Times editorial at the time summed up the bruised mood of those on the right who blamed Tory MPs afraid of losing their seats for opportunistically supporting Heseltine’s challenge. Their behaviour, the paper said, was “monstrously cruel”, and exemplified “squalid manoeuvring by an introverted male Establishment terrified it might lose office”.

On what issues did he most disagree with her? “Oh well, the council tax was the large domestic issue and Europe the international issue.” The paradox, as he points out, is that “the policies of the Thatcher government were the most comprehensively pro-European of any government. [They] transferred more sovereignty to Europe than any other before or since. The rhetoric and the realities never matched.”

It was partly the issue of Europe that led an obscure patrician baronet, Sir Anthony Meyer, to become the first Tory MP to challenge Thatcher in 1989, in the hope that Heseltine would follow. “He gave a warning shot,” recalls Heseltine. “A man of great integrity, very strong views. I knew him, but there was no way I was involved in any activity on that. He felt that something had to be said and done, and did it.”

Heseltine’s own resignation marked the end of what had been a relatively productive association with Thatcher. “My relationship with her was a very good one – in the sense that you’re not friends in government, you’re colleagues,” he says. “She appointed me to two of the biggest departments [Environment and Defence] and backed my judgement on virtually every issue, putting me in the front line with two of the major issues of the first half of the 1980s: the sale of council houses and the battle with CND. So, from any detached point of view, I have no complaints. I enjoyed myself hugely. Of course, one had endless discussions, sometimes relatively tense, but that is the way government works.”

Reflecting on the 1997 Labour landslide, Heseltine says one factor above all was responsible for the Tory defeat. “I think the biggest reason is always the same – the state of the economy. The reason why I think Gordon Brown is approaching the end is that there is no economic recovery in sight. No sign of one, and there’s not enough time anyway.”

But, he says, the other problem for the Tories was the media: “There was an immense feeling that no one was listening. What they were preoccupied by was sleaze. As a spokesguy [sic] trying to put over the case, you knew that everyone felt you were trying to wriggle off the subject of sleaze to get on to the economy.

"In the context of history, the sleaze issues were of tiny significance, but of the moment they were everything."

In the years after the 1997 defeat, Heseltine remained outspoken. When he called for Iain Duncan Smith to be replaced by Kenneth Clarke, his old foe Norman Tebbit labelled him a “serial Conservative assassin. He did it to William Hague. Indeed, he did it to Margaret Thatcher. I suspect he would do it to any leader except Michael Heseltine.” Heseltine maintains the line that these were lost years. “It takes some time for what is left of the party, at the end of a long period in power, to recognise how fundamentally it has to change. I think that David Cameron saw that very clearly, and has done a very remarkable job in changing the public perception and particularly the young person’s perception of the party.”

But isn’t that the problem? Hasn’t Cameron only changed the perception of the party, and not substantially changed its policies on any major issue? Would not a Clarke leadership, or, indeed, a Heseltine one, have brought with it more fundamental change? “I think we’d have had a divided party on Europe. Undoubtedly in 1997, underlying John Major’s problems was this European divide. That wouldn’t have gone away with either Ken or myself. There might have been a more confrontational defence of European policy, but the issue still would have been there. I don’t think that would have dimmed the impact of New Labour. Their time had come. And the failure to dim it would have led to challenges to myself or to Ken from within the disgruntled elements of the party who would not have approved of our election in the first place.”

So does Heseltine believe, as many of Clarke’s critics always alleged, that the leadership of either man would have split the party? Heseltine smiles for the first time: “We wouldn’t have split the party . . . But the row would have festered on.”

"In the context of history, the sleaze issues were of tiny significance, but of the moment they were everything"

Surely that Eurosceptic wing has grown, if anything? “Yes.” And it remains there under Cameron? “Yes, certainly.” Won’t he have to take it on? “Well, I think the issue has lost salience.” But hasn’t the case for British entry into the euro, long advocated by Heseltine, been underlined by the financial crisis, the weak pound and calls for fresh banking regulations?

“Without doubt the euro has survived so far – a very important qualification – better than the pound. One of my reasons for wanting to associate myself with the euro was that I think the Germans have been much more effective economic managers than us.” For the past 60 years, he says, “I’ve seen the value of the pound consistently decline, as we’ve failed to manage the British economy effectively. Under all parties.”

Heseltine appears taken aback when told that Hague recently definitively ruled out entry under the Tories. “Has he ruled it out for ever?” Yes: on 6 January, in an attempt to reassure the anti-European Murdoch press before Clarke’s recall as shadow business secretary, the shadow foreign secretary wrote in the Sun under the headline: “William Hague explains why we must never join the euro”. “Well you can’t [rule it out]. William’s a very experienced politician – there’s no such word as ‘ever’ in politics.” But he said it. “Well, that’s not a statement that, er . . .” He trails off. “What – a hundred years? A thousand years? What does it mean, you know.”

Although Heseltine says he is content with his record, it must irk him that the leadership he long desired eluded him. It may be bitter-sweet for him to hear this tribute from a senior New Labour insider: “We knew that Heseltine would have been a more successful leader than Major. Thankfully, he made the crucial mistake of announcing his candidacy the morning after Howe’s speech, and as the dust settled, he was seen as a traitor.”

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict