Hobnobbing

Simon Hoggart

  • Michael Heseltine: A Biography by Michael Crick
    Hamish Hamilton, 496 pp, £20.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 241 13691 1

Michael Heseltine’s dark secret is that he isn’t such a clever politician after all. This absorbing book shows that he has important qualities for an MP and even a minister, but not quite enough of them. He has the ambition, and he certainly has the determination (one friend of his told me that the important thing to remember about Heseltine is that ‘he never, never, ever gives up’). He has the gift of oratory, which is increasingly rare among modern politicians. Like many people whose political opinions are fairly middle of the road, he needs to work himself into a lather of rage when he makes a big speech, which is why his conference set-pieces were always more successful than Mrs Thatcher’s: she was so confident in her beliefs that she didn’t need to shout them out.

Heseltine’s rhetorical style involves acting as if he has been driven to the very edge of his reason by the looming horrors of socialism. Just at the moment when you think he’s going to start gnawing off his own arm, he hits the audience with a joke, all the more effective for bobbing on a sea of angry spume. One good example came nearly two years ago when he quoted Gordon Brown’s notorious line about ‘neo-classical endogenous growth theory’, which had been provided by Brown’s adviser, Ed Balls. ‘So it wasn’t Brown. It was Balls.’ The celebrated ‘Michael knows exactly where to find the clitoris of the Conservative Party’ is attributed by Crick to Noel Picarda, a Liberal, though I’m fairly certain it was said by Heseltine’s old friend Julian Critchley. These speeches take an enormous amount out of him. He was desperate to prove that his heart attack in the summer of 1993 was caused by a blockage rather than a weakness in the heart itself. However, he took his doctors’ advice and skipped his annual harangue at the Tory Conference that year; it would have been too great a risk.

The main reason Heseltine has never reached the top is that he failed to cultivate the voters, which is the greatest error a politician can commit. In this case the voters are Conservative MPs, many of whom barely set eyes on the man while he was planning his assault on the summit. His aides finally persuaded him that he ought to get out and about to let them know what kind of chap he was. He started schmoozing with the press at much the same time, and it was rather unnerving, as if he had just finished a cheap correspondence course in small talk. As Crick points out, he can be appallingly bad at man-management, or even the small social niceties which oil everyone’s wheels. He is surprisingly low in self-confidence, which may be one reason he sets so much store by the trappings of authority. He is also genuinely interested in the big issues, and more concerned about them than he is with the usual who’s-up, who’s-down chit-chat which dominates the bars and tea-rooms of Westminster. But you have to keep your colleagues onside. All Tory MPs, including the dimmest and the battiest, have the same number of votes in a leadership election as the leader himself. They must be constantly reassured that their opinion matters, even when it doesn’t. Especially when it doesn’t. If you look for the common trait, the lethal flaw in most of the Finest Prime Ministers We Never Had, it tends to be an aloof arrogance, a sense that the Great Man should not waste his time discussing council repairs and football results in the Strangers’ Bar. In 1976 there were few Labour MPs who had been consulted by Denis Healey and probably even fewer who hadn’t been insulted for their intellectual shortcomings. One (possibly apocryphal) story about Roy Jenkins illustrates the point. He’d been persuaded by a Welsh colleague to hobnob with some of the lads. ‘Buy ’em a drink, Roy. They’ll always remember your kindness and they’ll be flattered you sought them out.’ So Jenkins approached a surprised back-bencher, asked him what he’d like, bought him the pint and said, ‘Well, I’m sorry I can’t join you, I have an important meeting,’ and walked out. In the end, as Heseltine discovered, in the leadership contest of 1990, there wasn’t enough affection.

The book abounds with Heseltine’s failures of judgment. His two chief aides are Michael Mates and Keith Hampson. I would describe both men as friends of mine, and Mates has been largely proved right over the Asil Nadir affair which got him sacked from the Northern Ireland Office. Yet neither man commands all that much respect from other Tories, and whatever their other merits they were the wrong choices as Heseltine’s eyes and ears. Nor were they rewarded for their work. When he was invited into John Major’s government, after gracefully conceding defeat in the second leadership ballot, Heseltine should have made ministerial jobs for Mates and Hampson absolute conditions of his return. He should have done the same even if privately he thought them incompetent. You don’t need to be Machiavelli to know that you must reward your friends with rather more than their just desserts if you hope to have many friends left. Politics is not a game in which you win the prizes simply by being the best; you need a network of alliances and debts. Politicians buy friends just as customers buy love from prostitutes.

When out of office, Heseltine prefers to conduct his affairs from his place of business rather than the Commons. That’s a reasonable thing to do, but not for someone who is seeking votes there. In fact, there’s always been a suspicion among Tories at Westminster that Heseltine is a bit of a wrong ’un, and it started long before he did so much to end Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. There was the time that he didn’t lie to the Commons but certainly misled it over the Hovertrain affair. There are the silly gestures, such as picking up the Mace, which was meant to appear patriotic and committed but merely looked silly. There was the visit to Greenham Common in 1983 when he wore combat camouflage, as if the Peace Women were likely to shoot at him. There was the way he appropriated the title President of the Board of Trade when he became Industry Secretary, even though the Board of Trade (which included the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Master of the Mint) had not met since 1850. There is the fact that while he has always been happy to leak in his own political interest, he hounds down anyone who leaks against him. The pursuit of Sarah Tisdall for sending a not especially sensitive document to the Guardian, and the persecution of Clive Ponting over the Belgrano, both left an unpleasant taste in many mouths, as the jury showed when they acquitted Ponting.

The older, traditional Tories think Heseltine is too nouveau. At Oxford, he thought the Conservative Association stuffy and snobbish: Crick suggests that for six months he wondered whether he had joined the right party. That snobbishness hasn’t disappeared. Take Michael Jopling’s celebrated remark, quoted by Alan Clark: ‘The trouble with Michael is that he has had to buy all his own furniture.’ Willie Whitelaw is quoted as saying that he is the kind of man who combs his hair in public, though that sounds too mean for Willie. There are also the big political mistakes, such as the 1992 pit closures fiasco and the attempt to privatise the Royal Mail – unwanted and unnecessary.

Then there was his failed attempt to replace Margaret Thatcher. (He was very proud of the formulation, used when he was asked about the leadership, that he ‘could not foresee’ the circumstances in which he would challenge her. In private he would add the rider: ‘but who do you think is going to do the foreseeing?’) What followed was a complicated interplay of misjudgments. Mrs Thatcher assumed that, as had happened the year before, she would easily see off any challenge to her position. This is why – after Sir Geoffrey Howe’s devastating resignation speech – she had Bernard Ingham tell Heseltine, in effect, to put up or shut up. That was a mistake: she had overestimated her strength (one problem with being a party leader, and especially a prime minister, is that you have no one to point out your weaknesses). But Heseltine’s error was to fall into the Heffalump trap she had prepared; he allowed himself to be pressured into standing, in the knowledge that his entire strategy depended on her fighting to the end. When the Cabinet deserted her – in part to prevent a Heseltine succession – he was certain to lose. We all remember what we were doing when we heard Margaret Thatcher had resigned. I was watching a TV news flash, as it happens, though others have more interesting stories. Heseltine was on his way to a tree-planting ceremony at London Zoo and realised instantly that it was the end of his ambitions.

So why did the uninspiring John Major win? Partly because of the wave of feeling against Heseltine as a regicide and the certainty that his election would have split the Party in two. Partly because, over the weekend between the two ballots, Major performed far better on TV than Douglas Hurd and the constituency officers rang their MPs to tell them to go for him. But it’s not a coincidence that Major had spent years being nice to every Tory MP he met, offering himself as a walking tabula rasa on which they could write their own political views. Many disparate people (including a few Labour MPs) were delighted at his election because they believed Major thought very much as they did. Margaret Thatcher was among the first to be cruelly disappointed.

Heseltine cannot be blamed for his failure to unseat John Major in 1995. He must at the back of his mind have hoped that, following a succession of calamities and appalling poll figures, Major would have been told to resign by the so-called Men in Suits – disloyalty has always been the Tories’ secret weapon. However, times have changed, and the creaky but effective mechanism of forced resignation doesn’t exist any more. It’s also useless against a leader who refuses to go quietly. Major cunningly became his own stalking horse and resigned as party leader. Heseltine could not commit a double regicide, and was obliged to have all his own supporters back Major openly. This they did, in some cases waving their ballot papers around the committee room before putting them into the box. Yet it must have been a bitter moment. If his three dozen or so hardcore supporters had not voted for Major it is unlikely that the Prime Minister would have survived the election, and Heseltine might have won the next round.

On the day of the vote, Heseltine spent a large part of the morning in Downing Street. This has led to the notion that there was some kind of deal cooked up with Major, possibly involving a promise to stand down in 1996 if the Tories’ fortunes did not improve. Crick points out that if there were such an arrangement, Major has reneged on it, but doubts very much that it existed in the first place. For one thing, Major could not hand the succession to anyone he fancied, and with each passing day Heseltine’s own chances were getting slimmer. Even MPs who largely agreed with his views on Europe would have been fearful of choosing such a divisive figure. As so often, Heseltine consoled himself with titles. He became Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State. He does love all this carry-on. In the House recently he said: ‘I was speaking then in my capacity as a Millennium Commissioner.’ I gather that much of the time in Downing Street that morning was spent not with the Prime Minister, but in finding a suitably spacious and imposing office to commandeer.

There are nonetheless attractive aspects to Heseltine, including the arboretum he has planted at home and which he will not live to see in its maturity. There is something disarming about a man who devotes a large part of his free time to the pleasure of future generations. He is not an ideologue, even if he sometimes tries to depict himself that way. He has rarely followed up on his ‘I will intervene before breakfast, before lunch ...’ speech, but the money has always been tight and the dogmatists in the Cabinet unyielding. The Continental style of intervention he admired in that speech is deeply unfashionable in the Tory Party (and the Labour Party) now. From time to time, a Conservative politician realises how some people in this country really live, as Harold Macmillan did in Stockton, and reacts appropriately, as Heseltine did on Merseyside. His conclusions about the breakdown in civil order there were published as a report called ‘It Took a Riot’, which Margaret Thatcher straight away rejected because it recommended spending money and, to her mind, would reward the rioters. Heseltine also has a good track record on race, which is more than can be said for many of his colleagues.

His most famous act – storming out of the Cabinet over Westland in 1986 – was also fairly valuable and, I think on balance, in the national interest. Opinions differ about whether the gesture was premeditated, though I think it was at least very carefully considered. We attended a dinner party a few days before, at which Heseltine was present, and in the car home my wife, who had sat next to him, said: ‘that man is going to resign.’ His statement, made straight after he had marched out, was suspiciously long and detailed. Even though he had not brought Thatcher down, and she went on to win another election, he had given her a terrible reminder of her own political mortality. If Heseltine had remained in the Cabinet, he might have prevailed against her on the poll tax. Privately he foresaw the horrors it would bring – after spending so much time on Merseyside, how could he not? At the very least, I suspect, he would have fought against it and might even have resigned on the issue. As it was, even sensible people like Chris Patten buckled down and got on with the disaster.

I wish Crick had made more revelations – he is full of hints about Heseltine’s relationships with women – but it may be that on the whole with Hezza, what you see is what you get. There is a certain naivety, even innocence about the man, which makes it hard for him to conceal as much as most politicians do.