Lord Heseltine: “Germany lost the war. Brexit hands them the chance to win the peace”
One of the biggest beasts of the Conservative jungle has been sacked, but Michael Heseltine won’t let that silence him. He talks to Sam Macrory
As Conservative MPs waited nervously by their phones following Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister, Lord Heseltine simply arrived for work as usual. “Absolutely. I mean, I really continued because nobody stopped me. No one got in touch and said ‘please continue’. I decided, OK, until someone says stop ...”
He held multiple advisory roles, all of which he ran from an office in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Having campaigned passionately for Britain to remain in the European Union, in the days that followed the 23 June vote Heseltine vented furiously at the role played by leading Leave campaigner Boris Johnson. He then decided to stay quiet. It was clear that Heseltine remained enthusiastic about his work for the government but was biting his lip when it came to May’s response to the Brexit vote.
Eventually he decided that he had no choice but to enter the fray. With peers debating the government’s Brexit bill, Heseltine voted for an opposition amendment to ensure a meaningful vote on the final outcome of the negotiations. Later that night, while at supper with his wife, Anne, the former deputy prime minister was called back to the House of Lords to be told by the chief whip that he had been sacked.
With no Whitehall desk, or staff, to call his own, Lord Heseltine is spending his 84th birthday working from the Soho offices of Haymarket, the multi-million pound publishing firm which he first founded in the 1950s. A fortnight on from the late-night intrigue of his dismissal, he is looking forward to another evening out with his wife, this time to celebrate his birthday. The chief whip is unlikely to interrupt them again, with Heseltine accepting that the “upside” of his sacking is a feeling of liberation.
“The last few months have been a tension for me, as my close friends know,” he admits. “I am now free, and if anyone is listening I will continue to play a role in trying to avert what I perceive to be a disaster of British self-interest. The letters keep flowing, the invitations keep coming. And as long as there’s an interest, I will decide what response I give.”
On the morning after his sacking, Heseltine revealed, in an almost throwaway line, that he had never even met Theresa May. A Downing Street spokesman said Heseltine was wrong. “I’ve never met her,” he insists. “But why should I? Why should she? I’ve got no complaints. It’s a matter of historic fact that I’m a lot older than her and my time in parliament didn’t really coincide with her.”
However non-existent his relationship with the prime minister, her response to his rebellion was ruthless, with one of the biggest beasts of the Conservative party effectively sacked six times over.
The morning after the night before, he was due on a train to Swansea, where he had expected to help sign-off the government’s £1.3bn city deal: the latest in a line of public-private partnerships. Second, he had been developing policies to overhaul Britain’s 100 most deprived estates, a “long-term exercise” which he says “is in a good state”.
Job number three saw Heseltine advise the government on its industrial strategy. A green paper was published in January, with Heseltine commissioned to work on an internal report following the consultation period. Instead, he says, he will “now do a public report about my views”.
For his fourth job, Heseltine coordinated the “hugely exciting” work on the east London corridor, building on the regeneration of London’s East End in the 1980s – a project which centred around his creation of the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981 – by pushing on to Southend and Canterbury. Work is at a “formative stage”, says Heseltine, but “development will happen on a big scale, whatever happens”.
Serving as a commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission was the fifth of Heseltine’s governmental duties, and he quickly corrects himself when explaining that “we were in the middle … they are in the middle, of a much more strategic assessment” of Britain’s place in the world.
Finally, Heseltine was also at the heart of what he calls the “general devolution agenda”, continuing the work he started with former chancellor George Osborne to break the “over-centralised power structure of Whitehall and moving power to relevant local structure to create a partnership between the public and private sector”.
As he recalls the “jewel in the crown of the East End”, the renovation of Manchester, and the “tear-jerking transformation of Liverpool” which he led in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots, it’s clear that Heseltine won’t let the removal of his official titles silence his passion for an area he has been involved with for decades.
“I think that any policy that doesn’t embrace the energies and enthusiasm of people in the places where they live and work and breathe and dream is unrealistically holding the nation back,” he warns. “My faith is based on the simple statement that London didn’t make this country. This country was made by the great city states of the 19th century: Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Plymouth and Bristol; London, certainly, but only as part of a jigsaw. The great devolution agenda is about recreating the agenda. And it would be a tragedy to hold it up … to stop it. It would be appalling.”
When it comes to Brexit, Michael Heseltine believes the tragedy would be in not stopping Britain’s departure from the European Union.
His position is unflinchingly consistent: Heseltine supported Edward Heath’s move to take the UK into the European Economic Community in 1973, and backed Margaret Thatcher’s signing of the Single European Act in 1986. The benefits of being part of the EU and “sharing powers”, Heseltine says, make far more sense to the younger generation than the “dialogue of 50, 60, 70 years ago which says the nation state is in charge, it’s sovereign”, while he laments a vote which he says will reduce Britain’s influence in Europe, see America turn to Germany for a new special relationship, and diminish Britain’s ability to argue for the Commonwealth’s interests.
He then returns to 1933, the year of his birth, to argue his point. “Hitler was democratically elected in Germany. He unleashed the most horrendous war. This country played a unique role in securing his defeat. So Germany lost the war. We’ve just handed them the opportunity to win the peace. I find that quite unacceptable.”
But while he was one of 13 Conservative peers to back an amendment demanding a “meaningful” parliamentary vote on the final terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, no Tory MPs supported the amendment at second reading.
“I’ve been there,” says Heseltine, who sat as MP for 35 years, of his Commons colleagues’ caution. “I know the pressures of the tribe. Voting against your party is very difficult. It affects your career. It affects your relationship with some of your constituents. I fully understand.” However, he warns that concerned Conservative MPs must face up to the “dilemma” of weighing up the short-term difficulties to their career against addressing “the transcending issue of our time”.
As an MP, Heseltine voted against his party just twice – on its opposition to the Labour party’s 1960s anti-discrimination race relations legislation and, in the 1990s, over the “indefensible” poll tax – and has “never regretted the fact I did what I did”. He then adds, with a smile, that “actually, looking back, I’m not sure it did me any harm”.
He urges MPs to consider how Brexit “affects Britain’s place in the world … certainly the world in which certainly their children will have to seek their influence and their destiny”, and reminds them that “it runs counter to the judgments, however you value them, of every Conservative prime minister I have worked for – including this one”.
A few weeks before the referendum, May, an otherwise fleeting presence in the campaign, gave what Heseltine recalls as a “wholly reasoned, rational, intellectually convincing speech” in defence of remaining in the EU. In his exit letter, he accused her of changing her mind. But isn’t the prime minister simply responding to a vote which saw the majority vote for Britain to leave the EU?
“I don’t know how someone who made that speech can within a few weeks say ‘Brexit is Brexit’ and ask the nation to unite behind it,” Heseltine replies, before drawing on one of Mrs Thatcher’s most famous phrases as a stinging point of comparison. “I remember, echoing down the corridors of history… ‘You turn if you want to; the lady is not for turning.’ This lady was for turning.”
But could Heseltine change his mind? If foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit secretary David Davis, and Liam Fox, the secretary of state for international trade, triumphantly emerge from the forthcoming negotiations with the EU, will Heseltine then back Brexit?
“The old saying is ‘if the facts change, I change my mind’, but they are not changing and I don’t see the slightest chance of them changing,” he snaps back, insisting that “the most successful outcome is not to do it”. His assessment of Johnson, Fox and Davis, is withering, with Heseltine admitting that he backed the trio’s appointments because “I didn’t believe they knew what to do”.
And do they? “They had to prove they didn’t know. And they’re making quite a good first of that.”
There is, however, one proposal – backed by both Johnson and Fox – which gets Heseltine’s backing. “I believe it was a terrible mistake to get rid of the royal yacht,” he says when asked about the idea of a new vessel to replace Britannia. “I argued so at the time, and I wish I had prevailed.”
While Fox, Davis and Johnson leave him unimpressed, Heseltine has sharper criticism for one, equally celebrated Brexit-backer – “I wince with embarrassment when I see Nigel Farage acting as a surrogate foreign secretary with the new American administration” – and one lesser one: Zac Goldsmith.
He points to Goldsmith’s backing of Brexit and opposition to a new runway at Heathrow, and complains too it was “extremely ill-judged” to put Goldsmith forward as the Conservative candidate in the 2016 mayoral election. In a fascinating insight into how deep the Tory divisions on Brexit are running, Heseltine reveals that he refused to vote for his party colleague. “I can tell you that I agonised. I’ve never voted anything except Conservative in my life but I could not vote for Zac Goldsmith. To me he was arguing to betray the essential interests of one of the great financial centres of the world. That was his policy and I could not vote for that. I didn’t vote against him. I abstained. I never told anybody because I didn’t want any tiny influence I might have to influence the result. Perhaps that was rather cowardly of me but I did abstain and the fact of the matter is, so did large numbers of Conservatives.”
Heseltine’s criticism of Goldsmith is not just a historical complaint: he believes the Richmond byelection – triggered by Goldsmith in opposition to the government’s Heathrow policy, and won, despite his 23,000 majority, by the Lib Dems – is an insight into the “deep and bitter fury by the 48% who think they have been abandoned”.
So while Heseltine accepts that a “powerful case” can be made for Theresa May, currently riding high in the polls, calling a snap election, he warns that “there is no way of uniting this country in a way that absorbs those resentments”.
And he says the first election of 1974, when Edward Heath asked “Who governs Britain?” provides a warning of what could unfold.
“The first two weeks … I shall never forget it, we were heading for a landslide. On the Monday before polling day I have never felt such a transformation. The whole thing went dead and we lost.
“Snap elections – on issues that perhaps might be unpredictable at the beginning of the campaign – have their downsides as well.”
While he will continue to argue against Brexit, Heseltine knows that he must also be prepared to wait. “This is not about headlines. Headlines are too misleading, too dangerous,” he makes clear. “What we want is a calm, reasoned debate. And events, I think, will be the great adjudicator of how this all goes.”
While the media bids mount up, perhaps Heseltine, previously a rare sighting in the House of Lords, will also become a regular contributor as the Upper House debates on Brexit? “I will take whatever platform I think gives me the opportunity to convey my views. You think perhaps, and certainly wrongly, you are speaking to a fairly influential and important audience but a relatively small one – but that isn’t the case anymore,” he says of further contributions from the red benches. “It is much watched. I can see from the flow of comments that it is a valuable platform.”
He won’t rule out the idea of a second referendum on the final deal struck with the EU over Britain’s EU departure, and insists that such a vote would “not be a fraction as divisive as pursuing the Brexit option against the interest of 48% of the voters”. And perhaps, he adds, a second vote will see many more vote for Remain, and “maybe it will all be for the best of all possible worlds ….maybe”.
Where his party goes next is equally unclear. At war with itself over Europe for much of Heseltine’s time in parliament, the referendum was meant to end the arguments for good. “We’ll see,” says Heseltine when asked how divisions can heal. “That’s not a cop-out argument. I don’t know how his will unfold.”
For now, while the pro-European wing of the party is far from the ascendancy, Heseltine is confident it will return, arguing that “the Conservative party is the most sophisticated political party in democratic history … in the end it likes to govern and in the end it always comes back to its one-nation roots”.
Who might lead them? Heseltine worked closely with, and is a huge admirer of, George Osborne. Is the former chancellor, despite or because of his now considerable extra parliamentary duties, capable of returning to frontline politics?
“I think he is and I think he should,” Heseltine decisively replies. “He was an exceptional chancellor. He ran the Treasury. He imposed policy objectives which were not natural to them.”
So Osborne should not give up prime ministerial ambitions just yet?
“I hope he won’t.”
As for Michael Heseltine, more than 50 years after first entering parliament, and a fortnight after his first political sacking, the work, as ever, continues. “I’ll do what I have always done,” he promises.
“They haven’t kicked me out of the party yet. They kicked me out of my advisory jobs, but as yet there is no suggestion I should be asked for my membership card back. So I will do what I believe to be in the best interests of this country, within the Conservative party.”