By Peter Hennessy

11 Aug 2014

Journalist and historian Peter Hennessy meets former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine to discuss his life in politics – and his views of the civil service.

It’s always a pleasure to interview Michael Heseltine. The first time I did so was in the spring of 1982, when he drove me around Toxteth as minister for Merseyside – determined to implement his ‘It Took a Riot’ cabinet paper, prepared in the aftermath of the Liverpool disturbances a year before.

The forcefield he creates around himself is undiminished 32 years on, and so is his sense of mission about growth, regeneration, and the purpose of politics and government. Every department he’s occupied, he’s tried to turn into a ministry of production; and he naturally seeks to make the civil service his allies.

“The civil service? A Rolls Royce,” he says. “Best engineering. Wonderful design. No driver, no petrol: that’s what the politicians do.”

“So you’re the petrol man and the driver man.”

“Yes, and of course you can drive it madly in the wrong direction. You can crash the car. But the car still remains a wonderful piece of engineering.”

He didn’t always think this way. What was his impression of the civil service when he first became an MP in 1966? “It would have been an image of total ignorance and deep prejudice. I came from the small business world, so they were part of the enemy: ‘Get out of my way, stop sending me bills, stop sending forms, leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.’ There are millions of people like that. I was one of them.”

“I suppose over 40 years I can think of one or two things that I thought weren’t that good: when the civil servants didn’t behave as I’d hoped they would,” he continues. “But my general experience is that if you know as a minister what you want, and you are effective in describing it and disciplined with it, you can get amazing results from the civil service. And I have done it on many occasions: from having an idea to seeing it in reality.”

Lord Heseltine’s first brush with the minister/civil service relationship was during the Heath government of 1970-74. “When I became minister of aerospace [at the Department for Trade and Industry] we created the European Space Agency,” he recalls. “That was an idea of mine embraced by civil servants enthusiastically across Europe, negotiating deals with France and Germany. We got it in, I suppose, about a year or two; and it’s still there. So that was my first experience of realising what could be done. Of course, my next experience – the big one – would have been Liverpool.”

More on Merseyside in a moment. But before those summer riots of 1981 seared him, Heseltine took on the reform of the giant Department of the Environment (DoE) – to which Margaret Thatcher had despatched him on taking office in 1979. He reviewed its 66 directorates and introduced a new management information system for ministers (MINIS). He was that rare thing: a Cabinet minister with a genuine feel for management, when many were bored rigid by it.

“Well, most detailed management is very boring,” he comments. “It’s a grind – perhaps fun for the first few minutes, but when you have to do it week after week, month after month, watching those figures, getting detailed answers when you’re tired – Cabinet life is exhausting.”

Heseltine’s relationship with Thatcher was streaked with psychodrama. In January 1988, he famously quit his job as defence secretary over the government’s policy towards the Westland Helicopter Company. And, in November 1990 he ran against her for the party leadership, precipitating her resignation after the first ballot.

Nonetheless, on the need for improved Whitehall management, they pretty well breathed as one – so much so that she unleashed him on the Cabinet to persuade other minsters to do in their departments what he was doing in DoE. It did not go down well with his colleagues.

“I was very flattered when Margaret said: ‘Well, Michael, this is very good. You must come and tell the Cabinet’,” he recalls. “I should have been more circumspect, and said: ‘Margaret, this is not the way to go about it.’ Because they were all there: Willie Whitelaw, Quintin [Hailsham]... Just imagine the scene. You know, Willie was a great figure; a wonderful man in many ways. But to say to Willie: ‘You are going to sit down and ask for an organogram of the Home Office, and you are going to get into the detail of whether the third secretary on the left has got any authority to fill in the forms that have been filled in for the last 25 years...’ It’s just not real life!”

“But the whole thing came to an explosive end,” he continues, “because I did my presentation to a lot of stony faces, and [defence secretary] John Nott, who was then wrestling with the x percent inflationary problem at the MoD – huge! – intervened to say: ‘Margaret, do you really think that I, facing this £20bn inflating at x per cent, have got time…’”

At this point Thatcher got rather personal, responding to Nott that he “couldn’t run a whelk stall!” Then, Heseltine remembers, “the pair of them just went at each other and that was the end of that.”

From Cabinet strife, we move on to urban disturbances; and it’s the memory of Liverpool that really makes Heseltine glow. He went up once a week, visiting his Merseyside Task Force; its members, who included Eric Sorenson and Colette Bowe, would “tell me what the progress was; tell me what the blockages were…”

“You really loved Liverpool and they rather liked you, despite the difference in politics.”

“Yes, yes, certainly. One of the most emotional moments of my life was when the Labour leader – and he’s got 69 Labour councillors – said: ‘We want to give you the freedom of the city.’ I have to say, tears rolled up in my eyes… A Tory! One of the most aggressive Tories! Me!”

Lord Heseltine is that rarity in British politics: a comeback kid. After John Major’s election as leader, he returned as environment secretary, then president of the Board of Trade, then deputy prime minister. And the crusade continued: City Challenge; the competition agenda. He left the Commons in 2001, but headed up the Tories’ Cities Task Force in 2007. In 2012, he produced the huge No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth report for David Cameron, George Osborne and Vince Cable. And at 81, he still can’t stop.

He still keeps an eye on the civil service, and says he’s wary of the plans for Extended Ministerial Offices (see p30). As a junior minister, he favoured a British version of the French ‘cabinet’ system – under which ministers bring in a larger group of political advisers – “but when I became a Cabinet minister – by which time I was more experienced and knew what I wanted – I gave up all the ideas of the ‘cabinet’ system, because I didn’t need it,” he says. “I believe in special advisers. I don’t believe in political advisers.” Heseltine is a fan of experts with specialist knowledge and practical experience; but definitely not of media advisers.

He regrets the passing of the Civil Service College. “The civil service has many virtues but, above all, it’s incorruptible and it’s very mature and experienced,” he says. “And my guess is that it’s a very marketable concept to lots of emerging countries. So what I would like to see is a Civil Service College – call it what you like – that attracts young civil servants from across the world to train them alongside British civil servants. I think it would make money. And I much regret that [the National School of Government, formerly the Civil Service College] was closed down.”

If I could wave a magic wand and give Lord Heseltine a chance to deliver one last reform, what would it be?

“Oh, I would turn Whitehall into an enabling, questioning, driving, visionary, world expert, and I would delegate huge swathes of administration and decision-making back to the local enterprise partnerships.”

The fires still burn. Lord Heseltine in full glow is a magnificent sight.

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