Michael Heseltine: the best Tory Prime Minister we never had?

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Before: it began with an envelope. As a schoolboy, the young Michael Heseltine mapped out his future. In his 20s, he would become a millionaire. In his 30s, he would become an MP. In his 40s, he would be on the Tory frontbench. By his 50s – between 1983 and 1993 – he would enter Downing Street.

Today, eighty-year old Lord Heseltine claims not to remember this incident which comes from his friend, the late Julian Critchley, who also later served as a Tory MP. But his ambition was unquestionable. By the 1970s, Heseltine had achieved almost all of these ambitions. He was a multimillionaire and already a popular favourite at Tory Party Conferences.

“The government should go and if it had a shred of pride it would go today,” he raged in one 1976 speech about the Callaghan Government. “The reality…a one-legged army limping away from the storm they have created. Left, left – left, left, left!”

The audience roared as Heseltine limped across the stage.

It was all going so well. And then the career of Margaret Thatcher got in the way.

Heseltine Speaks At Conference

“Tarzan” as he became known, maintained a high profile in the Eighties, first as Environment Secretary then as Secretary of State for Defence. He espoused an early form of “compassionate conservatism” (a term that did not exist at the time) on touring Liverpool and on another occasion combated CND protesters in a bomber jacket. Both were good for publicity. However, both these and a 1970s incident in which he picked up the mace in the House of Commons, contributed to the Spitting Image stereotype of him as a swivel-eyed loon.

The 1986 Westland affair precipitated a fatal personality clash with Thatcher. He stormed out so suddenly, that many present did not even know he had resigned. Some thought he had gone to the loo. But he had quit. The next four years would be spent in the wilderness, waiting for Maggie to grow vulnerable enough for him to strike against her.

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Thatcher recovered from Westland, saved in part by a misjudged, long-winded attack in the Commons by Labour’s Neil Kinnock. She won a third victory in 1987 but by 1990, Thatcher was acutely unpopular over the Poll Tax and mounting European divisions. Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor had resigned in 1989. When Geoffrey Howe followed in 1990 and unleashed an incredibly damaging resignation speech, Heseltine knew it was his time.

Opportunity 1: “He, who wields the dagger, rarely wears the crown”.

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Heseltine challenged Thatcher. His own campaign was undermined by a somewhat arrogant attitude towards his fellow backbenchers. But the Thatcher camp made errors too. Thatcher won the first ballot but was two votes short of the number needed to win outright.

A second ballot was inevitable. Foolishly, Thatcher pledged to fight on. Soon she was forced to resign.

Surely now was Hezza’s time? He had overthrown Thatcher just as she had overthrown Ted Heath in 1975. But Tories were shocked and angry at what had happened. The wounds have not entirely healed even today. An unofficial “Stop Heseltine” movement was formed. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor John Major were drafted to fight Heseltine. The little known John Major emerged triumphant. He was 47: ten years younger than Heseltine.

Opportunity 2: Major catastrophe?

British Prime Minister John Major (L) and his de

Heseltine returned to the Cabinet under Major as Environment Secretary. It was the same position he had held when Thatcher came to power in 1979. Eleven years on, he had toppled Thatcher but was back where he started. It must have been a bitter time.

However, the Major leadership soon proved vulnerable. Although Heseltine remained loyal throughout this period, opportunity never seemed far away. First, there was the 1992 General Election. Heseltine fought hard for the Tories and to his credit, he showed no signs whatsoever of wanting Labour to win.

Yet if they had, Heseltine would undeniably have been the frontrunner to succeed. And the Tories were widely expected to lose.

But the opinion polls were wrong. The Tories had won a fourth successive victory. Heseltine was awarded with the position of President of the Board of Trade, the job he had coveted almost as much as Prime Minister.

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But Major was not out of the woods yet. His premiership would soon prove an almost  total disaster as the Tories lost their record for economic competence after Black Wednesday and fell into open civil war over the Maastricht Treaty. Sleaze would soon rear its ugly head too. Worst of all for the Tories, Labour started to get its act together first under John Smith and then after 1994, under Tony Blair.

Although a likeable character, Major proved a weak and decisive Prime Minister. His leadership remained under almost perpetual threat from the autumn of 1992 until the May 1997 General Election.

But who would succeed? Heseltine still looked strong but several points counted against him.

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Firstly, Heseltine had courted unpopularity by overseeing the pit closures at the end of 1992. Also, many Tories still blamed him for Thatcher’s removal (she was now, at least in the House of Lords). But if it was Major’s pro-Europeanism that was giving him problems, Heseltine offered no solution. He was, if anything, more pro-European than his leader.

Even worse, Heseltine’s health soon became an issue. Heseltine suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1993. His father had died the same way and though Heseltine soon made a full recovery, his age (he was now entering his sixties) was now a concern. The sudden death of John Smith, the Labour leader following a heart attack in May 1994 did not help.

Heseltine also now faced rivalry from Chancellor Ken Clarke and rising star of the Right, Michael Portillo. But all had “issues” in the same way Heseltine did. Portillo (then in his early forties) was seen as too young. Clarke was too pro-European too. And Heseltine was too old. Perhaps this is why Major survived as long as he did even after openly inviting a leadership contest in 1995.

Major had expected his disgruntled ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont to stand against him. Instead, the Eurosceptic John Redwood did, having first resigned as Welsh Secretary. Major won easily, removing the possibility that any of the big three leadership contenders would run. Heseltine was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

Perhaps Tory defeat was inevitable whoever the leader was by 1995. At any rate, John Major led the Tories to their biggest defeat of the century in May 1997. He resigned soon after.

Opportunity 3: Last chance?

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The Tory defeat in May 1997 was devastating. Labour won a majority of 179, a bigger victory than any achieved by Thatcher, Attlee or any other post war leader.

Unexpectedly, Michael Portillo also lost his seat. The way seemed clear now for Heseltine. A number of candidates stood: William Hague, Ken Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. But Clarke was the only serious contender.

And yet, it was this point fate played a cruel trick. It was now that Heseltine suffered an attack of angina and announced he would not stand.

It was the end. He would never serve on the front bench again. Boris Johnson would succeed him as the MP for Henley on Thames in 2001.

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Conclusions

Could Michael Heseltine have ever been Prime Minister?

Clearly, yes although several points went against him.

He would probably have won the Tory leadership had he been able to stand in May 1997. But would he have wanted it? The Tories had just been routed. Most estimates suggested it would take at least two elections to overturn the Labour majority (in fact it took three). Heseltine would have been close to seventy even before the next national contest in 2001 or 2002.

Perhaps 1995 would have been a better chance? But no. Heseltine would not have relished bringing down another Prime Minister. And a General Election defeat in 1997 seemed inevitable even then. Even had he won in 1995 (by no means a sure thing), he would only have been Prime Minister for two years. Although even this was longer than he ultimately got.

Perhaps Heseltine’s best chance would have been not to have overthrown Thatcher at all. Thatcher would then have lost to Labour in 1992 leaving the leadership free for him.

But with Michael Heseltine close to sixty by then, it would have been a risky strategy. Perhaps like Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, he was just unfortunate that his political heyday coincided with that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

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The rise and fall of Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo

ImageAs Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right but also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…

With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of him in his school locker. This only changed when hr began experimenting with conservatism at university.

By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.

Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank”. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major in an off the record moment complained he could not sack. There seemed to be no stopping him.

That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably installed as a precaution if Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997 as was universally expected and then stand for leader then?

Few expected the Tories to lose as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority won by any party since the war.

Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven his political nemesis.

The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won the leadership. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.

Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?

But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.

Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Tony Blair was born in the same month as Portillo and ultimately proved his nemesis. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.

Alternatively, had Labour won by less in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.

Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was sincere and not a tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.

Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.

But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.

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The trouble with satire

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It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that political satire only tends to truly thrive under Tory Governments.

This has been true ever since the birth of the first modern satire boom of the early Sixties. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and That Was The Week That Was all prospered during the dying days of the Tory regime of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home. Likewise, although rarely overtly political, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) enjoyed its true heyday under the government of Ted Heath (1970-1974). Then came Thatcher and Major. Margaret Thatcher’s election in May 1979 coincided almost exactly with the birth of alternative comedy. But it wasn’t just that. Not The Nine O Clock News, Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, If…, Dear Bill, The New Statesman, The Friday Night Armistice and Drop the Dead Donkey undeniably got a boost from their being a Tory Government in power.

Why should this be the case? Partly, it’s because true satire rails against the Establishment and the Tories embody the Establishment better than Labour ever can.

It’s also because, in general, right wing people tend not to be very funny. Lady Thatcher, despite inspiring great satire herself, famously had virtually no sense of humour. Boris Johnson’s buffoonery amuses but he rarely says or writes anything which is deliberately funny. Jeremy Clarkson, meanwhile, is quickly out of his depth in the world of politics (as opposed to motoring) and rarely gets beyond saying anything shocking or childish when he venture into the political arena.

The myth that the politically correct Left lack a sense of humour is ill founded. It’s actually hard to think of anyone funny who isn’t on the Left. Ask anyone for a list of funny right wingers, meanwhile, and most likely their list will solely consist of the obscure, the racist or the dead.

After the 2010 General Election something clearly went wrong, however. We now have a Tory Prime Minister again. So why are we not enjoying a new satire boom?

Part of the problem might be that because New Labour were arguably almost as conservative as the Tories, satire never really went away under Blair and Brown. The Thick of It owes its origin to these times and in fairness, is still great. But Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week are clearly past their best and 10 O’Clock Live has never really got off the ground.

I blame the politicians. Whereas in the Eighties, politics was filled with colourful characters ranging from the Bennite ultra-Left to the uncaring Thatcherite Right, the Blairisation of British politics has been fatal to satire. Blair was the most successful politician of recent times: little wonder everyone wants to be like him, elect a party leader like him and fight for the centre ground like him. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all essentially Blair wannabes: posh, PR friendly men in suits. Miliband would never wear a donkey jacket, Cameron would never drive in a tank. From a comedic point of view, this is bad news.

The Coalition confuses things further. Try as we might to pretend Cameron’s lot are the new Thatcherites, this is only partly true. They are occasionally uncaring, more often incompetent, sometimes liberal and, yes, sometimes actually Liberal as in Democrat.

The global scene doesn’t help. The idiotic George W Bush was satirical gold, just as President Reagan had been two decades before. But Barack Obama, an intelligent, moderate, slightly disappointing but well meaning black president is hardly the stuff great satires are made of as the failure of the novel O demonstrates. In this respect alone, perhaps Governor Mitt Romney would be better.

British politics seems to lack the colour of the past too. But perhaps I am wrong to blame the political set up. Take the former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. He is a decent man, yes. An exciting man? No. Trust me: I have seen him speak. And yet in the hands of Spitting Image, voiced by Harry Enfield, with his hairstyle strangely coiled, his puppet was frequently hilarious.

There is surely enough material in the current political class – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson’s eternal rivalry with David Cameron, Ed Balls, the never ending evil that is Rupert Murdoch – to inspire great satire? Perhaps it’s simply a case of “could do better, must try harder.”