Leading pro-EU campaigner Lord Heseltine talks to TIM WALKER about where the battle was lost, the likely fate of Dominic Cummings and the press barons he holds responsible for Brexit.
Few politicians have counted in – and counted out – quite as many prime ministers and their minions as Lord Heseltine, and, so far as this seasoned observer is concerned, Dominic Cummings will be no more than a fleeting irritation. ‘I can’t see him lasting in his job for more than a year,’ the great One Nation Tory predicts. ‘He may once have been useful to the prime minister, but he’s become a liability. He’s allowed himself to become the focus of attention and feels he can indulge in personal briefings.
‘He can’t seem to distinguish himself any more from the politicians, who are, unlike him, accountable and answerable to the public. He should reflect on what Alastair Campbell said when he ceased to work for Tony Blair: ‘I have become the story.’ I wonder, however, if he has that degree of self-awareness.’
Unperturbed by the coronavirus panic, Heseltine is suited and booted as normal in his unshowy office in Victoria in central London. His diary is as crammed as ever – he has the BBC to see after me – and it’s hard to entirely accept that he will shortly be celebrating his 87th birthday. He has about him the air of a magnificent, if currently vanquished lion, but the roar is undoubtedly still there.
He said after Boris Johnson’s emphatic general election win just before Christmas that the battle to stay in the European Union was over, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost interest in what’s best for the country. ‘I accept there’s a parliamentary majority to leave, but I will continue to fight for the things I have believed in all my life. The problems I foresaw with Brexit have not gone away and it’s absurd to say that Brexit is now done. It’s nowhere near being done.
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‘I was saddened but unsurprised that Boris got the mandate he needed to take us out of the EU, and, in all honestly, I can’t see us rejoining the EU in my lifetime, but that does not mean we will not rejoin. I am very conscious of the fact that the younger generation sees things very differently to the older generation.’
For all that’s happened, Heseltine remains a Conservative through and though and baulks at uttering a word of criticism of the beleaguered home secretary Priti Patel or the intellectual firepower of this cabinet, compared with the ones that have preceded it, and says, with a weary insouciance, that he has been unstartled by how Johnson has set about governing the country.
‘Boris’s policy has always been to get his head down, to push forward and to make it clear to anyone who gets in his way that they do so at their peril. It’s a very effective way of operating as prime minister, but of course it’s fraught with danger. Sooner or later, it gets beyond the slogans and comes down to the details, and that’s when life becomes a lot more challenging.’
Heseltine believes the Conservatives have always served the country best when they have won elections from the centre ground and considers the current government to be the most extreme and doctrinal that the country has witnessed since 1983 – the year of Margaret Thatcher’s first re-election – and nothing can convince him that its love affair with Brexit is going to end well.
‘This is not a policy that will lead us all to the land of plenty, but Boris is clearly at the moment still in his honeymoon period with the electors. The floods and the coronavirus have inevitably thrown it off course, and honeymoons never last forever, and it’s hard to predict how this is going to pan out.
‘There may well be a very tough time ahead for us economically, but you have to look beyond that to the 12 months before the next election. If there is some evidence of resurgence during that period, then that’s what the voters will remember. In terms of whether people will feel the impact on their pockets, it will depend very much on whether or not the prime minister will be able to get the deals he needs.’
Heseltine isn’t especially bothered that the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have still to get around to choosing their new leaders – ‘there isn’t a lot any new opposition leader could do in these circumstances’ – and, for what it’s worth, he would like to see Keir Starmer take over from Jeremy Corbyn.
‘It’s not in the best interests of the Conservative party to have a serious opposition leader, but it is in the best interests of the country. The role of the opposition in calling governments to account is fundamental to our freedoms. Starmer seems to me to be the best option that Labour has available, but whether they will choose to take it is a matter for them.’
I ask Heseltine if he feels a sense of disappointment in Theresa May and David Cameron for largely keeping their heads down in the never-ending Brexit arguments since leaving office when Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have all thrown themselves into them with gusto.
He neatly sidesteps the question by saying that the focus of any blame should be on Corbyn and Jo Swinson, the former Lib Dem leader. ‘Corbyn dithered on Brexit in the election and people could see how pathetic that was against the absolute certainty that Boris represented. The Labour leader’s left-wing baggage also frightened people and pushed a lot of Europhile Conservatives back into the fold. People were also not impressed with Swinson – they could see that she had very little to offer – and so we never put up the fight we could have done.
‘I supported tactical voting in the last election and I don’t think it was that people hadn’t the imagination to see how that could work, it came down as it always does to self-interest. They could see the options they were presented with were not appealing.
‘There were egos on our side of the argument and tribal factions, too, which did not help us, and, looking back, probably all we really had going for us were the big marches that Alastair Campbell was involved with. They were impressive.
‘A lot of voters were nevertheless angry that, as a result of the financial crash, living standards had not improved and we allowed the advocates of Brexit to blame all of that on Europe, the bureaucrats, immigrants, and so on, without addressing the real causes. The advocates of Brexit were very clever in that they had a simple message that leaving Europe would set us all free, it’d then be possible to improve the situations of everyone, and, as for all the arguments people like me were putting up, they could all be bundled up into a great big box labelled Project Fear and put to one side.
‘What was never emphasised was as frustrating as it could sometimes be living within any union, here was a grouping of 28 diverse democracies that had previously been aggressive and belligerent towards each other living in peace and cooperating commercially.’
Courageously for any figure in public life, Heseltine is willing to accept that the all-powerful media moguls should also take their share of the blame for what led up to the vote to leave the EU in 2016 and the chaos that has ensued. ‘You look back at people like Conrad Black – who used to own the Telegraph when its readership was substantially greater than it is now – and Rupert Murdoch and you see their papers have been dripping poison on the European project for years and years. I think there’s a very powerful argument to say that people who are non-doms – not domiciled here for tax purposes – should not be permitted to own our major media operations and to set our national agenda in the way that they do. Other countries do not allow people to do that and we need to consider this question very carefully.’
He adds that lots of people were simply in the wrong jobs at the wrong time so far as the media was concerned, not least at the Daily Mail. ‘When he edited the Mail, the late Sir David English was a passionate Europhile and campaigned vigorously for us to join the European Union. Paul Dacre, his successor, turned out to take a view that was diametrically opposed to that. I’m not sure what Sir David would have made of the position the paper has taken in recent years.’
Taking into account all of the exceptional circumstances that led to Johnson’s election victory, I ask Heseltine if the prime minister should not perhaps show a greater degree of humility and be more willing to listen to those with different points of view. ‘That’s not how it works and he knows that only too well. Winning is enough.’
Heseltine has a sense that the country is a returning to a time that will recall for older people the 1950s when Harold Macmillan was prime minister and he had to help with an adjustment to new realities: the costs of the Second World War, the agonies of a post-imperial world and a destiny that was far from certain.
‘Our politicians will no doubt make great, optimistic speeches about our country once again being a sovereign nation, back on the world stage, outward-looking and wielding power in its own right, and I’ve no doubt if I were still in office I could, too, if I chose my facts and figures and arguments with sufficient care, but I would not of course believe in it. I don’t know if the ones in office now will all really be able to make themselves believe in it, but I’ve no doubt they’ll make them sound very stirring all the same.’
Heseltine’s immediate concerns are that Johnson may have to shut down parliament if the coronavirus crisis worsens significantly. ‘Boris did not of course wish this virus upon us, but you could argue that in terms of Brexit nothing would be more convenient for him than to dispense with all scrutiny at this time. In the context of a very extreme situation, it would however be difficult to criticise him for taking that course of action.’
He makes, however, no criticism of the way the prime minister is handling coronavirus – ‘I’m not sufficiently in possession of the facts to opine on that one,’ he says – but says that it emphasises once again that borders are in so many situations irrelevant, not simply in terms of pandemics but also climate change, terrorism and tax evasion, among so many other problems.
He is alarmed, too, at the prospect of the UK quitting the European convention on human rights post-Brexit. ‘That was an agreement signed in the post-war world to send a message to the countries behind the Iron Curtain that we were part of the free institutions of the West and believed in the rights of individuals and that seems to me to be as important now as ever.’
When I ask Heseltine about what gives him the greatest satisfaction in life, he talks immediately about his garden. He seems to me a man who has come to find what the Quakers call ‘peace at the centre’, but he still wants to see the younger generations have the chances he had and he is reluctant to criticise them.
‘Members of the older generation often have trouble summoning up much reverence for the younger generation. The language they use is often unfamiliar to us, we can’t quite cope with how young they look or get on to their wavelengths, but it’s too easy to belittle the quality of those who come after us. The young have tough fights ahead of them – every bit as much as we did – and we should do all we can to help them.’
For all the great crusades he has been at the forefront of in his lifetime, he remains, too, refreshingly realistic about politics and how those who practice it are perceived. ‘No politicians tend to be highly regarded for very long and not many are remembered for more than a few years after they’ve died and no doubt I shall be no exception.’