Interview: Michael Heseltine—Brexit was very scary before. It still is

He's seen three PMs fall over Europe—and won't say if he'll soon see a fourth
October 12, 2016
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“If you have a grounding based on Shakespeare, you never come across anything new,” is Michael Heseltine’s verdict on the shake-up of British politics triggered by the EU referendum. “Shakespeare knew it all, articulated it all, laughed at it all, exposed it all. Keep around in politics and the Shakespearean plot comes back and back…”

While the referendum brought the curtain down on the political careers of David Cameron and George Osborne, Heseltine is playing yet another part. I met the former deputy prime minister in his small corner office at the Department for Communities and Local Government, the base from which he advises the government on what he calls its “unstoppable” devolution agenda. Though 83, Heseltine, with his signature swept back hair now a little greyer, works with the energy of a man far younger.

Macmillan was Prime Minister when Heseltine first stood for Parliament in 1959, so he has seen plenty of occupants of No. 10 come and go. But he regrets Cameron’s departure, noting it is “very sad that he will not be able to escape from the referendum as the major determining factor of his premiership.” While Cameron has already quit parliament, Osborne—who Heseltine praised as “the most strategic chancellor I ever saw”—remains. Could he, as Heseltine did four years after quitting the Thatcher Cabinet in 1986, make a comeback? “I see absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t. He is an able politician, he has a formidable track record. If he so wants, it’s up to him.”

It is now 50 years since Heseltine was first elected as an MP, but the uncertainty of Brexit is a new and, for him, uncomfortable experience. He passionately defended Britain’s place in the EU, and before the referendum he labelled the mechanics of Brexit as frightening. And now? “It is no more scary than it was before. And it was very scary before.” He returns, more than once, to the same question: “What is Brexit? No-one has any idea where that is going to end up.” The heavy lifting is being carried out by Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, and while Fox talks bullishly of trade with Europe being “at least as free” after Brexit, Heseltine is not convinced: “People have not fully grasped Europe—it is as though there is a sort of great blob out there called Europe. But it doesn’t exist.”

Yes, he said, “it’s perfectly true that the Germans have got a massive interest in selling products to this country,” but there are 27 EU countries to negotiate with. “You come across some quite conflicting things. You come across Malta, who have an adverse balance of trade with us and stands to lose all of its European support money if our aid is withdrawn. So it’s quite difficult to see why they should be so keen on a British deal.”

Which means, he warned, that “all of them have got to be persuaded… and I’m sure the eloquence of Davis, Johnson and Fox will weigh heavily in the debate.” At this point Heseltine paused, before adding, pointedly: “We will see quite how heavily...”

Despite the despondency, when I ask whether Britain might remain in the EU or even join the euro it appeared he had not quite given up hope of salvaging an outcome to his liking. “Let’s see what Brexit means,” he replied, ruling nothing out.

Heseltine has seen three Conservative prime ministers—Cameron, Thatcher and John Major—brought down by Europe. If Brexit stutters, might he see a fourth? “That would be creating a headline-type story out of nothing,” he replied, before smiling a little more broadly. “I’m not in the business of creating headlines. Not any more. I might have, once…”

Despite his continued employment at the DCLG, when asked about the new PM’s plans to increase selection in education Heseltine agreed that this was “a specific change, and obviously it is controversial.” His words here are careful, but it is clear that this is not a direction Heseltine would have taken. “The real issue is not about grammar schools or academies, it is about the standard of education,” he said. “Britain’s educational standards ranks us 29 in the world… if you have… standards of that sort you will never supply the skills that an advance economy requires.” So would the introduction of new grammars solve that? “No. Not of itself,” Heseltine replied. “If I have a personal agenda it is about the standards of the lowest schools rather than creating a new framework for the best. Structures don’t create quality. It’s people. Show me the problem, show me the person in charge.”

Many Labour MPs, unhappy with their leader, would agree. Labour “face a nightmare” under Corbyn, said Heseltine. But having witnessed the party’s 1981 split his advice to its MPs is to hold firm—“I remember some phrase, I think it was Disraeli… ‘damn your principles! stick to your party’”—and wait for a saviour. “Somewhere, out of the woodwork, will come the white knight. Don’t ask me who he or she is... work for it.”

If retirement ever comes, a book on his desk signals where his attention may turn. The first proofs of the history of his garden arrived that morning, and Heseltine, who compiled the book with his wife Anne, was keen to show it off. “Anne and I spent 40 years building this garden. We have adored it, and this book is a tear-jerking reincarnation of 40 years of extraordinary mistakes and occasional success. I know perfectly well that 100 years from now I won’t be remembered for anything except my garden.” Heseltine must surely know that after his extraordiary career history will be far kinder.

"Thenford: The Creation of an English Garden" by Anne Heseltine and Michael Hesletine is published by Head of Zeus