Tory grandee Lord Heseltine is not afraid to think, and say, the unthinkable when it comes to Brexit – even if it rattles his party’s top brass. TIM WALKER speaks to one of British politics’ biggest beasts
In the company boardrooms, on the streets of the deprived inner-cities and addressing the Tory faithful as their perennial ‘conference darling,’ Lord Heseltine – affectionately known as ‘Tarzan’ – always knew how to win friends and influence people.
‘I suppose it helped that I generally had the newspapers behind me and they mostly reserved their scorn for the Labour Party,’ says the grand old man of One Nation Conservatism when I meet him at his office in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral.
‘In common with everyone else who wishes us to remain within the European family, I now know what it is like to have them against you and how ruthless and unprincipled they can be.’
There is no love lost between him and his party’s high command, either, and, for all his powers of persuasion, he admits he was not invited to campaign for Theresa May in the last general election. Still, if these are Tarzan’s wilderness years, he seems to regard them – even at 85 – as no more than a passing phase.
‘You can judge a man by his enemies and I am actually rather proud of mine,’ he said. ‘It is important, too, not to lose perspective. I am getting hate mail, for sure, but not as much as I got, say, when we were taking on the CND and I was visiting Greenham Common as defence secretary. I know there are some who say that politics has got a lot tougher, but it has always involved ruthlessness, people fighting their corners and harsh things being said and I’ve no doubt been a part of that myself.’
Heseltine is determined to fight with everything he has against Brexit. He regards the vote to leave the European Union as ‘the most serious and destructive peacetime decision ever taken by the people of Britain’.
He sees the situation now as grave, but by no means hopeless: ‘Nobody can say that they know how this will play out, because it could play out in any number of ways. There may be an earlier than expected general election. You can’t say for sure that in that Labour wouldn’t end up advocating another referendum, as my instincts tell me it will change its present position.
‘It is quite possible, too, that between now and the end of any transitional period with the EU, there could be a change of government which may, in the light of experience, result in a change in policy on the EU.
‘The other possibility, of course, is during all of this time, Europe decides of its own accord that it needs to address the issue of immigration, and, if it does that, it would clearly undermine the case of the Leavers.’
Heseltine angered many in his own party when he dared to wonder out loud if a Jeremy Corbyn government wouldn’t be such a bad idea in these extraordinary times, but he insists that he is not alone in his party in weighing up the pros and cons. ‘I doubt at the moment that Corbyn would be any better at handling Brexit, but it would give members of my party time to think through what is happening and to see it from a distance. To that extent, a short-term exposure to Corbyn would be less damaging to this country’s interests – and I’d say my party’s – than a long-term exposure to Brexit under this government.’
Heseltine has watched with bemusement as pro-EU parties have been setting up shop almost weekly and a number of politicians have tried to project themselves as national saviours, but he at least is staying put on the Tory benches. ‘It is hard enough to fight your party from within without adding ‘traitor’ to the charge sheet. Labour fractured over Europe before with the establishment of the SDP in the early 1980s and it didn’t work out well. I think my party will come through this, but it may take time. We have always won from the centre – never the extremes. Every single prime minister I have worked for – and there have been a few – believed it to be in the best interests of the country to be involved in the European journey. I can’t believe we will give up on all of that on the basis of a throw of the dice in one referendum.’
May inherited Heseltine as an adviser from David Cameron, but never exchanged a single word with him: ‘She sacked me when I voted in the Lords for a meaningful parliamentary vote on the Brexit negotiations. Three weeks after that, she agreed to that very thing. I find her mystifying. I will never understand how she could have campaigned against Brexit and then felt able to launch herself so wholeheartedly into its implementation.’
The prime minister is not a natural performer in the way that Heseltine is and she came to power with a series of invidious decisions to take, but, for all that, he has no sympathy for her. ‘No one is made to be prime minister. Every one has come to the job as a volunteer and there is no shortage of volunteers to replace them if they find the job is not to their liking.’
Heseltine makes it a rule, however, never to criticise anyone involved in the already massively over-emotional Brexit debate on a personal basis. Even Boris Johnson – who succeeded him as MP for Henley – he professes to get along with on a personal basis and admits he makes him laugh. As for Johnson’s former classmate at Eton, Cameron, Heseltine credits him with turning around the fortunes of modernising his party after he became its leader, but accepts he will be remembered for the grave error he made in agreeing to the EU referendum.
‘He did not discuss it with me. I knew that it was coming when he agreed to pull out of the European People’s party alliance in the European Parliament to try to pay off the hard right of our party. When you pay Danegeld, it’s hard to get rid of the Danes.
‘David couldn’t see as we went into that referendum that there were primal forces at work, and, 50 years on from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech – one of the most immoral speeches I ever heard and I am proud to say I was the first to condemn it from a Conservative platform – the populist right is once again on the march around the world and it’s no coincidence that wherever it is you see Nigel Farage.’
Heseltine believes it will be the poorest and most vulnerable in society who will be hardest hit by Brexit as the economy transitions from being the fastest-growing in Europe to the slowest. ‘We will also have to come to terms with the fact that after 2,000 years of involvement in the continent of Europe, we will be reduced to just watching great conferences in which virtually every other nation will be represented.’
Heseltine puts his faith in parliament to do what is right when May eventually presents her deal. ‘I know about all the pressures from the party whips and the local associations, but I also know there are some very brave men and women in the Commons. All that will matter is that there will be enough of them.’