The former deputy PM says there will be another election in two yearsby Jay Elwes / September 29, 2017 / Leave a comment
Michael Heseltine’s office in the West End of London is an unassuming place. The walls are blank, the carpet worn and aside from a desk and a computer, there is little else. The view from the window is of fire escapes and balconies.
Heseltine is 84, and when he stands, surprisingly tall. Despite his age, the eyes are bright and when he talks, he is by turns genial and combative. As we shook hands, I told him that I wanted to talk about Europe. “I guessed you would,” he said.
What’s going to happen? I asked. How is Brexit going to end? There was a long pause, the first of several, as he stared ahead in thought. “The most likely scenario now,” he said eventually, “is a period of protracted uncertainty about whether Brexit will happen.”
“I think there will be another election in two years’ time and, as yet, I see no preparedness by the Conservative party to face that fact and to seek a consensus view which can unite the party.”
It’s all delivered in Heseltine’s familiar drawl, the r’s still fractionally softer than they might be, the rhythm of speech carefully measured, each word chosen with care. Which is to say that he’s still a politician—albeit one abandoned by the party for which he has worked since the 1950s, as everything from election volunteer to Deputy Prime Minister, a position he held under John Major. He was regarded as a contender for the top job, but his pro-European views stymied his chances.
Brexit has not been kind to Heseltine’s wing of the Conservative party: that centrist one-nation part that has been trampled by the Tory nationalists, made wild by their Brexit success. The ascendancy of this element within the party, in his view, brings with it the threat of political catastrophe.
“I see no emergence of a leader prepared to say the sort of things that might give us a chance of preventing the disaster of a Corbyn victory,” he said. “We need someone to sing a more acceptable and more relevant tune. As yet, that person hasn’t emerged.”
Following our meeting, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary wrote an essay for the Telegraph, in which he set out his vision for a post-Brexit Britain, a piece widely seen as a Eurosceptic pitch for the Conservative leaderhip. I contacted Heseltine’s office to ask whether he felt Johnson might be a suitable candidate. He replied by email, saying: “I have said we need to change the song not just the singer. As yet I have heard no one prepared to do this.” He also commented on Theresa May’s Brexit speech: “It seems evident that the Florence speech nether unified the Cabinet or unlocked the negotiations,” he said.
“I think there will be another election in two years’ time and, as yet, I see no preparedness by the Conservative party to face that fact”
Theresa May’s problems are thrown into even sharper relief by the opposition’s new sense of purpose, he said. “The Labour party has smelled the wind and they know where this Brexit thing is going—and the Trade Unions are flexing their muscles. They’ve shifted their position, just a bit, but I think they’ll shift it more. And if I’m right, and public opinion begins to move, the more public opinion moves, the more the Labour party will move. They’ve smelled the wind and they’ll try to leave this Government holding the baby of the calamity of Brexit.”
The rise of the Eurosceptic Tory hard-right has deep roots. In Heseltine’s analysis, its origins lie in the late-1970s, when Margaret Thatcher came to power. It was then, he says, that “the post-war social accommodation of a united nation fighting a common enemy was replaced by a much more divisive domestic political scene.” It came as a sharp break with what had gone before, a time when all classes worked, fought and suffered together in the common purpose of defeating fascism, and where members of Parliament would, Heseltine recalled, address one another in the Commons as the Honourable and Gallant Gentleman, or Lady. It’s a view with more than a touch of nostalgia about it. There is no place in this happy scene for the entirely dishonourable adventure in Suez, for example, or the appalling social prejudices of the time.
The era of Thatcherite change that brought this period to a close, Heseltine said, happened because successive governments of both right and left failed to reach an accord with the unions. The disaster of the of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, which collapsed in March 1979 under pressure from the unions, showed that “this was not a left-wing, right-wing issue,” he said. “This was Government against the unions. The Thatcher government, which I was proud to be a member of, realised that this issue had to be confronted.”
And it was confronted: by tax reductions, privatisation programmes, by the sale of council houses and the intellectual attack on left wing ideas. The changes made by the Thatcher government were, he said, “socially revolutionary.”
“But in their articulation, I think that some parts of the Conservative party drove an extreme conclusion far out of keeping with the spirit of the changes we were actually making.”
If that explains the rise of the Conservative right, the rise of Tory anti-Europeanism was, says Heseltine, a result of “the decision by Margaret to support the single European Act.” That agreement, reached by European leaders in 1986, marked the birth of the single European market, and it was he says, “the biggest sharing of sovereignty in peacetime in British history. It was not an ill-thought-out or spontaneous judgment. It was realisation by the government—by the Prime Minister—that Europe was about to take fundamental steps that would profoundly affect us. And it was our decision: whether we wished to influence those steps, or face the consequences of being told what they were.”
The Single European Act was signed during a period of recession—in 1986, unemployment in the UK hit 11.8 per cent. Britain’s small business lobby had campaigned against the act, uneasy at the prospect of a pan-European market and it was an argument to which the Conservative ranks were especially receptive. “There’s no doubt,” said Heseltine, “that the drip-drip-drip of blaming the foreigner in the late ’80s did lay the seeds of the anti-Europeanism which today has become associated with Brexit.”
The Europe problem has dogged the Tories for thirty years. It destroyed David Cameron and now threatens to crush Theresa May, just as it haunted John Major and Thatcher before them. Now, Heseltine says, Brexit even threatens the foundations of the Conservative party itself. “When you consider that half the cabinet, half the Government and half the Parliamentary party don’t agree with Brexit, there is an instability in that situation which would indicate to me that events could fracture it.”
“The most likely scenario now is a period of protracted uncertainty about whether Brexit will happen”
“The characteristic of part of the Conservative party has been shifted in a nationalistic direction—the elderly part,” he says. “The younger part of the Conservative Party is exactly the opposite. But the selectorate, who choose the candidates and the members of Parliament, are largely a diminishing number of elderly people. I am one! We’re being replaced by young people who don’t believe a word of this stuff and who are furious at the legacy we’ve denied them in terms of world opportunities and a world platform.”
“The fracture’s there,” he said. “Every time I read exhortations that we must now unite, I don’t know how people can use those words. There is no unity. There won’t be unity. We’re not talking about something happening tomorrow. It’s happened.”
In delivering this analysis, Heseltine never quite gets angry, or if he does, it doesn’t show. But he does not shrink from imagining what the country might undergo as the government becomes ever-more sunk in the Brexit morass.
“The worst-case scenario is a muddled end that sees us leaving the single market and the customs union effectively with a de minimis agreement,” he said. “We will then suffer the consequences of the 45 per cent of our trade that goes to Europe, whilst we rush round the world trying to patch up deals with other countries, every one of whom will ask what our relationship is with Europe, because their exports to Europe are much more important than they are to us.”
“And so, when we try to explain what the investment possibilities coming from the United Kingdom are, they will say ‘well thank you very much indeed but we’ve got a better deal with Europe’.”
Heseltine’s frustration is compounded by the fact that other EU countries already have deals with markets that Eurosceptics say are off-limits due to EU rules. Britain was always free to pursue those deals, said Heseltine, “but we didn’t. And we didn’t do it because our manufacturing industry is not as competitive as it should be, we’ve lost ground in sector after sector.”
And when he comes to Britain’s negotiations with the EU, Heseltine allows himself a moment of schadenfreude.
“One of the first things I said when the referendum result came out was that they must put the Brexiters in charge,” he said. “If we hadn’t, they would by now be blaming the Government for the failures of the negotiations. That’s what they’d have done. And so, putting them in charge means there’s no escape for them.”
“I think it was essential to reveal Brexit for what it is. It’s a vacuum. It’s rhetoric. It’s emotional pandering. It’s not policy.”
Does he think that negotiations with Europe have already failed? “Well they haven’t already failed, they are failing. Boris [Johnson] wants them to whistle, David [Davis] says they’re being obstructive, Liam Fox they want to sack,” and he laughed heartily.
“How do you think I feel? I first campaigned for Winston Churchill, who said ‘we must build a United States of Europe.’”
What about the Prime Minister? If he could advise her, what would he say? After all, Heseltine has watched enough politicians go through tough times, some of them from very close to. In the case of Thatcher, he was partly if not principally responsible for those tough times. What should May do?
There was a lengthy pause, and then: “My problem is that I know that the next two years is going to be about Brexit. That is the issue, and it’s going to be divisive and messy, and I don’t see any good news.”
“As I don’t see what Theresa May can do about that problem except live with it, the only thing I can suggest is to widen the debate to let the party see the choice of successor.”
The Prime Minister should also address policies other than Brexit. There are, he suggested, opportunities to make progress on education, workforce training and devolution. These things, he says, would be “worth fighting for, even if it terminated your leadership.” And yet, even attempting this would be, he conceded, a steep challenge. “The civil service is bogged down,” on Brexit, he explained. “They don’t believe in it. So yes, the Government is paralysed by this—but this is what leadership is about.”
Perhaps his exasperation with the Conservative mess calls for a change of direction, I said. Has anyone suggested setting up a new party? “Oh yes of course.” Is he interested? “Well I think it was Disraeli who was credited with saying ‘Damn your principles. Stick to your party’, and it sounds a bit cynical but it’s not to be dismissed because I thought that Roy Jenkins got it wrong in the early ’80s. He and his colleagues would have been much more influential in British political history if they’d stayed to fight the battle in the Labour party.” In 1981, Jenkins left the Labour party to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP.)
I suggested that it must be painful for him to look at the Conservative party and to see it in such trouble, heading in what he regards as an ill-advised direction over Europe, pulled that way by a section of its membership that has distorted the party’s political character. Heseltine thought for a while, fingers pressed together as he prepared his answer.
“Well how do you think I feel?” he said. “I first campaigned for Winston Churchill, who said ‘we must build a kind of United States of Europe.’ I’ve worked for every Conservative leader since. Every one of them has told me, in one way or another, with increasing certainty that we had to seek Britain’s best self-interests in Europe. And I’ve argued that. I’ve become wholly convinced of it. And now,” he said incredulously, “at my age, I’m supposed to think it’s all wrong?
“I’ve spent my life fighting for what I believe in,” he said, his voice dropping. “I don’t intend to change now.”