Michael Heseltine was never a “club-loving Tory”. To his enduring regret, he missed out on the top post in British politics he so craved.
At 90, he still cuts a fine figure. He is tall and slim. His lion-like, once golden mane is now snow white but still stylishly slicked back.
Educated at Shrewbury and Oxford, Heseltine has no illusions that he’s not for everyone. He says: “I’ve always been a controversial figure, I have views and I have expressed them.”
A direct hit: Lord Heseltine in his house in the London district of Belgravia
Heseltine was seen by many as Margaret Thatcher’s successor when she left Downing Street in 1990, but he lost to John Major in the bid to lead the Tories. However, he continued to serve as his deputy prime minister.
He’s honest about missing out, but perhaps there’s a tinge of regret that he didn’t ‘play the game’ in the Commons bars and tea rooms. “I’ve never been to the tea rooms,” he says. “I was seen as a divisive character.”
After David Cameron recalled him in 2010, a spectacular dispute ensued with the party over Brexit. In 2019 he was stripped of his right to vote after declaring he would support the Liberal Democrats in the European elections.
At his age, the multi-millionaire and publishing entrepreneur is as fiery as ever.
He believes the adults under Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are back in charge after the Liz Truss interlude, adding that there is still work to be done to show the electorate that after 13 years in government the Tories are still alive should still be in power.
“Anyone who thinks this is a perfect business environment is wrong,” he says. “But we always had the talent. It’s a great country.’
I’ve always been a controversial figure
The economic environment is showing some signs of improvement. Sunak is expected to reach its inflation target of 5 percent by the end of the year and the economy is growing faster than rivals Germany and Italy.
“I think there’s another rate hike coming up,” he says.
He identifies a variety of issues to be addressed, starting with the banks.
Throughout his long career he has been a passionate advocate for many causes. The latest of these is the Daily Mail’s campaign to get banks to pass on better savings rates to their customers now that interest rates are sky high. This is an issue that particularly affects many older voters.
“It’s a scandal,” he says. “It’s really serious.” Those with credit pay substantial sums, and those with cash receive ridiculous sums. Whoever has insoles deserves a good lashing of the whip.”
Chancellor Hunt has called the banks to Downing Street to tackle the problem, while in Italy Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has gone a step further and introduced an unexpected tax on lenders.
Power couple: Heseltine was seen by some as Thatcher’s successor
When it comes to Sunak’s plans to deregulate the city – Big Bang 2.0 – Hezza urges caution. The 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc and many of the regulations introduced after the event are considered by many to be essential.
The Big Bang happened under Thatcher in the 1980s.
“She let the foreigners into a gentlemen’s club and the town was transformed,” says Heseltine. “But remember, regulation is the difference between jungle and civilization.”
Heseltine sits almost regal in his armchair in London’s posh Belgravia, surrounded by antiques and rich cream carpets, as he flips through 60 years of modern British political history. As well as his home in London, he also owns Thenford House in Northamptonshire – a sprawling country estate.
His wife Anne comes over with coffee, tea and biscuits. As we chat, she sits across from us on the sofa and reads the newspaper, discreetly keeping an eye on what’s going on.
Heseltine says he feels the pain of the country’s entrepreneurs given the current high tax environment. Unlike most politicians, he has first-hand experience.
The corporate tax rate is currently 25 percent, the highest level in more than ten years.
He founded Haymarket – owner of What Car, Management Today and AI Week – in 1957 and made it a publishing success. Last year the company – whose son Rupert is now chairman – posted sales of £165.9million and profit of £11.2million.
We have talent – it’s a great country
“It’s never easy running a small business, but it’s always fun,” says Heseltine, his eyes shining. “Taxes are boring, but you have to pay them.”
He says tax cuts are not possible given the high level of spending during the pandemic. “Tax cuts are popular politically, but post-Covid there is huge government debt.”
We touch on Brexit. It’s no secret that it is anathema to him. “Historically, the single market is perhaps one of the most extraordinary concepts for success that mankind has ever developed,” he says.
But his abiding passion is the need for Britain to develop a credible industrial strategy.
He firmly believes that government and business must work together to enable the UK to advance in green technology and develop the industries of the future – including hydrogen and battery plants.
“We need a public-private partnership,” he says. “Anyone who thinks we can leave it to the market is talking nonsense.” He points to the US Inflation Reduction Act, which he believes is transforming the world’s largest economy.
He also wants regions to be given more power, allowing them to take control of their individual strategies. “It’s up to Manchester and Liverpool to develop their own plans,” he says. “But they need to be shaken up.”
In his opinion, the UK should stop selling all of its best and most valuable companies to foreign buyers in order to keep jobs and innovation in the UK. He says the government should have the power to veto takeovers if necessary.
In recent years, defense giants Cobham and Ultra have been sold to private equity – something he says would never have happened during his tenure as defense secretary.
Michael Heseltine, 90
Family: Mrs Anne. Children Arabella, Alexandra and Rupert
Life: Belgravia and Thenford House in Northamptonshire
Education: Shrewsbury School, Pembroke College, Oxford
Favorite book: RHS Plant Finder
Favourite movie: Casablanca
Where are you on vacation? I recently spent a week in Venice
Unsurprisingly, he is so passionate about using business to solve some of Britain’s social problems. In the 1980s he was the driving force behind the early development of Canary Wharf and the regeneration of Liverpool.
He recently authored a landmark report on restoring economic growth to Teesside following the steel industry closure in 2015, leading to an ambitious plan that created thousands of green energy jobs on the former steelworks site.
He says he wants his legacy to continue, adding that Conservatives should do more to rise to retain the Red Wall seats won in the 2019 general election.
“It was way too slow,” he says. “Currently there is no dynamic behind the process.”
But the One-Nation-Tory remains optimistic. “Virtually every major renewal innovation in this country has been driven by the Conservatives,” he says. “Every initiative I know of has been led by Tories.” He says Mayors Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands are good examples of those carrying on this Tory tradition.
Time flies by and the hour he allotted me in his busy schedule just flew by. And with that, Anne kidnaps the grandee for lunch. He may be in his tenth decade, but Hezza has no desire to slow down.
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