By Matt.Ross

08 Apr 2010

Elected to the Commons in 1966 and a veteran of eight ministerial jobs, Michael Heseltine brought down one prime minister and became the deputy of the next. The businessman politician talks to Matt Ross

“In politics, there is no honour”, said Benjamin Disraeli; Lord Heseltine would not agree. The veteran politician, who has nearly 45 years’ experience in Westminster, famously quit Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in 1986 over the future of Britain’s embattled helicopter firm Westland.

The then-defence minister had hoped to arrange a European merger, bolstering the UK’s defence industry, but Thatcher favoured an American buyer, and insisted that any comments by Heseltine be first cleared by Number 10. Trust had been lost, said Heseltine; and he walked, insisting that “There is no place for me with honour in such a cabinet.”

Yet while Heseltine may see a place for honour in politics, he doesn’t pretend that this is a gentleman’s game. Asked whether we’ve seen real cabinet government in the last 30 years or so, he replies – with a certain relish – that politics is “a very fast-moving, tough, rough job. You’re battered morning, noon and night.” In these circumstances, he says, “You need friends, sustenance, support; people you can trust. I don’t think you can expect anything other than for this process to deliver a ‘one of us’ scenario.”

It was, of course, Thatcher who used to ask whether politicians and officials were “one of us” – and in the early years of her government, Heseltine seemed to fit the bill. Made environment secretary in 1979, he pushed through the ‘right to buy’ on council houses. As defence secretary, he led the fight against the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But after leaving the government, he opposed the poll tax and – following Geoffrey Howe’s dramatic resignation – launched the leadership challenge that resulted in her downfall. It was brutal, perhaps, but honourable: “At least he stabbed her in the front,” commented Tory MP Edward Leigh.

Brought back into government by John Major, Heseltine returned to the environment department before becoming trade and industry secretary and, finally, deputy prime minister. By the time Labour took power in 1997, Heseltine had held eight government posts over 27 years, serving under three prime ministers. Small wonder that he has long since lost any sentimentality about the operation of politics.

Asked whether David Cameron’s Conservatives should concentrate on developing effective policies rather than playing politics, he’s clear: “The duties and responsibilities of an opposition are to oppose,” he says. “You’re not running the country: you’re there to expose the weakness of the government case; to indicate where things are going wrong; to hold people to account when they’ve made a mess of things.”

Indeed, Heseltine advises the opposition to say as little as possible about its policies. “The government and the media will try to get you into specific proposals, but if they’re any good the government will pinch them. On the other hand, if there’s anything wrong with the policy, then the opposition will suddenly find itself on the defensive,” he says. “We’ve just seen the Conservatives’ stamp duty proposals [to exempt homes below £250,000 in value] become an official government policy – and that’s exactly what happens. The time to have policies is when you can detect the mood of the electorate, and when it’s too late for the government to pinch the best ones.”

When honesty isn’t the best policy

Being honest, Heseltine suggests, is already costing the Tories votes. Asked why pollsters have been identifying a Labour recovery, he replies that “David Cameron and George Osborne are telling the truth about the harshness of the situation and the trauma that lies ahead. The Labour Party are lying, and people are attracted by the thought that the Labour Party will be more gentle, as they’re pretending.”

The reality, he says, is that there would be a “devastating price to pay” if a future Labour government borrowed as much as is predicted: “That would mean higher interest rates, job losses, higher mortgage interest – but they’re trying to put all that off until after the election. And you do get a political dividend from trying to persuade people that there’s no pain to come.”

Asked whether Labour will get away with it, Heseltine says that “in any normal electoral cycle, the Tories would walk it”, but observes that Cameron has got “two hands tied behind his back”: boundary changes mean that “David has to win the second-biggest swing since the war in order to get a majority of just one. That’s never been the case in my political life.” In other words, nobody can feel confident of victory.

Still, Gordon Brown has also had a rough time. Lord Heseltine has plenty of experience of handling challenges to a sitting PM; does he have any idea how Brown has survived so many coup attempts? Heseltine throws his head back and laughs: “He didn’t turn to me for advice, I can tell you that!” But then he thinks deeply, replying carefully that: “He hasn’t been there that long; that must be a factor. The machinery in the Labour Party is very cumbersome. And by the time the mood had become so questioning, the election was pretty close. The economic crisis gave him an international platform, which would have helped”.

There are, says Heseltine, clear parallels between the state of the current administration and that of Major’s last years as PM – and not just “an extremely uncomfortable economic situation, but one which is beginning to improve”; there’s also “the sleaze element, which was terrible in ’97. Every interview was all about sleaze, and the government is going through the same experience now.”

If Heseltine takes any pleasure in this turnaround, he hides it well. Instead, he is clearly furious about the recent Dispatches programme on lobbying – and particularly about the behaviour of Geoff Hoon.

“I was personally absolutely appalled to listen to a former defence secretary say that he thought he could help indicate to American companies where they could buy British defence contractors,” says the former defence secretary – who, of course, resigned while trying to protect a British defence contractor from an American takeover. “I saw him say it so there’s no doubt, no room for misinterpretation; but I couldn’t believe that a former defence secretary would say that, for his own, personal gain.”

From the lobby to the exit

It is also, he adds, “quite extraordinary” that “here you have three former cabinet ministers hoofed out of the party by their own colleagues, there and then, overnight, and Gordon Brown says there’s no case for an inquiry”. While careful not to directly accuse the three of any impropriety, Heseltine says that it would be “very easy” to influence serving ministers in the way described by former transport secretary Stephen Byers.

Heseltine is clearly not a fan of the lobbying industry. In government, “I was constantly being asked to do this or that,” he remembers – then he weighs his words carefully: “It didn’t influence my judgment about the decision, but I can think of one or two instances – particularly on planning matters – where I was lobbied and was quite pleased when, having looked at the case, I was able to take the decision exactly opposite to the one the lobbyist wanted.” However, he adds that lobbying is inevitable. “The way you deal with it is total transparency,” he argues. “We wouldn’t have had the expenses problem if it had been transparent; if they’d had to submit their expenses publicly.”

Beyond greater transparency, Heseltine does not advocate any wholesale reforms of our system of government. He does, however, complain that “we have been very ill-advised over decades in undermining the role of local government.” Councils should be given greater powers, he argues, with major cities encouraged to hold direct elections for executive mayors. And should those mayors’ powers run across conurbations, or simply within council areas? “I’ve been through every stage of this,” he replies. “I was part of the team which created the metro counties in 1972; I also got rid of them. And I’m now wholly convinced that we need directly elected chief executives in our major cities, as a first step.”

Ultimately, it seems, Heseltine – who leads David Cameron’s cities task force – thinks we’d be better off with conurbation-wide mayors: “There is a case for that”, he says, “but I wouldn’t do it, because if you start to recreate the metro counties you’ll just have a two- or three-year political battle on your hands.” Instead, he advocates “mixing practicality with politics” by introducing mayors to the city councils “and transferring some very significant opportunities to them”. This, he says, would be “quick, effective and desirable; don’t let the best be the enemy of the good”.

If Heseltine favours devolution of powers, though, he doesn’t want to see councils exempted from central auditing and measurement (see news). Heseltine is as much a businessman as he is a politician – he founded the publishing company Haymarket in 1957, only retiring as executive chairman in January – and he believes that indicators are crucial to effective management. “In this company we know every week what’s happening,” he says, gesturing at the ranks of magazines lining his office walls. “And in a big company like M&S, Tesco, they know every day. That’s how the system monitors itself, corrects itself – fast.”

Though Heseltine is not championing centralised targets and micromanagement of service delivery, he does think that ministers need systems to measure and monitor their department’s performance; they also, he believes, need to provide absolute clarity over objectives and a set of sensible but testing deadlines. “You have to know what you intend to do and not get diverted by the pile of files which is the agenda that the officials have for you”, he says.

Official accolades

Heseltine has an impressive reputation among senior officials. Richard Mottram, his permanent secretary at the MoD, praises his “very able, imaginative” former boss for his loyalty to civil servants. “If you made a mistake, he expected you to explain why it had happened and then move on,” he says. “So you had strong mutual loyalty, and he always stuck to his side of the bargain.” (For the full interview with Mottram, see the 21 April issue of CSW.)

Indeed, Heseltine’s approach is often cited by Institute for Government head Michael Bichard as the best way for ministers to operate; in his first job as secretary of state, he famously skipped the routine tour of the department and handed his permanent secretary an envelope on which he’d listed his priorities. The civil service thrives on such clarity, Heseltine believes: “They want firm leadership,” he says. “If you set a date, they won’t let you down. On that date, you will get something that purports to be the answer to what you’ve asked for. It may not be the answer to what you’ve asked for, but you won’t get nothing.”

Having said that, Heseltine does believe in very hands-on management when officials are proving recalcitrant. During the budgetary squeeze of Thatcher’s first Parliament, he recalls, cabinet ministers asked their departments for plans setting out the options for one, two and three per cent cuts. His officials, he says, told him: “Secretary of state, I can tell you, none of your colleagues are looking at three per cent”.

Presented with a set of plans “that were designed to put me off”, Heseltine simply insisted that officials consult him before every departmental recruitment. “For every ten people that left, we recruited six,” he says. “No-one got sacked; there were no redundancies. We just looked to see if we needed the job, or if it could be done in the private sector by contractors or whatever. When I went to the department in ’79 there were 52,000 people working there; when I left three years later, there were 39,000.”

Given the proliferation of interest groups and our controversy-hungry media, Heseltine says, it’s inevitable that “the whole process of cuts is conducted in an atmosphere of alarmism and sensationalism”. However, while he hasn’t recently studied the detail of public expenditure, he argues that “when we had to [make cuts], it could be done – and fair less painfully than the advance headlines portrayed.” If ministers ensure that they understand exactly what their department is doing, identify work that can be abandoned or farmed out, and maintain the pressure on head counts, Heseltine believes, they’ll find plenty of room for savings.

He sounds less sure about the value of bearing down on consultancy spending. “I’ve had very great service from people who’ve come in with a particular skill that is not available within the civil service, and acted in that context to improve performance,” he says. But he does argue that the use of political special advisers “has grown – in my view, unacceptably; I believe they should be culled”.

Poorly advised

The introduction of such advisers has created “another layer of intrigue, another conduit in the leaking process, another ingredient in the power struggles that go on”, complains Heseltine. “These political advisers become groupies to their own particular leader. You can’t avoid the clash of personality and power-seeking in politics, but you don’t need to have a little army surrounding each of these guys, all trying to get the media on-side.” And there’s something else that worries Heseltine: “They’re now translating into the House of Commons on a significant scale,” he says. “I would much rather see them getting an experience of some value in the outside world.”

As a minister, Heseltine was an independent-minded reformer, determined to take control of his briefs and to apply a businesslike approach on Whitehall. Many such people would have fallen out with their officials – but he’s very proud of the UK’s impartial, highly-skilled civil service. “My admiration for the British civil service is well documented. They served me extremely well and they are a joy to work with,” he says. “They just want to be treated as serious, thinking adults, and to be engaged in dialogue – hopefully you’re intellectually able to hold your own!

“One of my most treasured possessions is a bound copy of all the legislation I was responsible for from 1979 to 1983, signed by seven [of the environment department’s] top officials” Heseltine continues. “It has an inscription in it, to the effect that: ‘There’s no way of knowing which of us, if any, voted for the Conservative Party; but working here over the last few years has been a great experience’. And I really don’t have any idea how they voted – though I’d put money on at least one of them being a Labour Party supporter.”

There may not be too much honour in politics, but it is important in the civil service – and civil servants are ready to respect it when they find it. “I don’t believe that the civil service is full of crypto-communists or barking fascists,” Heseltine concludes. “They’re there because they love the sort of work they do. What they despise is someone who can’t describe what they want, or is simply prejudiced, or rude. And I hope that they would say that, while they might not have liked what I was doing, they always knew what I wanted to do.”


CV highlights

1933     Born in Swansea
1954     Graduates from Pembroke College, Oxford, with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics; launches a property business
1957     Founds publisher Haymarket
1966     Elected MP for Tavistock, Devon
1970     Made a junior transport minister by Edward Heath, then an environment minister handling local government
1972     Moves to Department of Industry as minister for aerospace
1974     Elected MP for Henley, Berkshire, and made shadow industry secretary
1976     Brandishes the mace at Labour left-wingers, acquiring the nickname Tarzan
1979     Made environment secretary by Margaret Thatcher
1981     Responds to Toxteth and Brixton riots with frequent visits and a push for urban regeneration
1983     Moved to the defence brief
1986     Leaves government over the Westland affair
1990     Challenges Thatcher for Tory leadership, winning 152 votes to Thatcher’s 204; Major makes him environment secretary to dismantle the poll tax
1992     Made trade and industry secretary, using the title of president of the Board of Trade
1995     After supporting Major against a leadership challenge, made deputy prime minister
2001     Leaves the House of Commons, and made Baron Heseltine of Thenford
2007     As head of the Tories’ Cities Task Force, recommends devolution of powers and the expansion of local authority mayors
2010     Hands the role of Haymarket executive chairman to his son Rupert, remaining as chairman of Haymarket Group

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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