Lord Heseltine warns against a magic money tree in Budget
Michael Heseltine is as energetic as ever at pushing the idea closest to his heart: Britain’s desperate need for an effective industrial strategy.
The voice is a bit more growly with age, but the collar-grazing silver mane still makes a swoosh. And at 84, on the eve of the Budget, Michael Heseltine – political firebrand turned elder statesman – is as energetic as ever at pushing the idea closest to his heart: Britain’s desperate need for an effective industrial strategy.
And he’s not holding back on his views on Brexit – he says it might never happen – or on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who he fears will be the next Prime Minister if his own party don’t get their act together.
He urges Philip Hammond, beset by demands to cut loose the public purse strings, to ‘keep his nerve’ in the Budget and not succumb to those siren calls.
‘If suddenly it appears that there is a magic money tree, then Mr Corbyn will say: “I told you so”,’ he says.
Resolute: Lord Heseltine believes we need a strategy for industry
To Heseltine, a proper strategy to foster Britain’s industrial growth is the answer. Hammond should, he adds, set up a sovereign wealth fund to invest in long-term projects – as the Norwegians did with their North Sea oil wealth.
We ‘squandered’ our oil money on tax cuts instead, but it’s not too late, according to Heseltine. Hammond could find the money right now, he says, by ‘finding something to privatise’. ‘I haven’t looked at what, but I privatised more than anybody.’
Hezza has always been outspoken and unafraid of taking on his own party. For much of his long career his belief that governments should back British industry has put him at odds with many fellow Tories. He was until March an adviser to the Government on industrial strategy until he was sacked for defying it on Brexit.
‘Critics think it is all about subsidising yesterday’s industries and it’s not. It is about sitting down and looking calmly at the future.
‘You must preserve, to the best extent you can, the disciplines of the market. It is about backing excellence, and about identifying where you are weak then trying to do something about it.’
Undeterred, he has this month produced his own 74-page blueprint. ‘I had to decide: Would I give up the work I had been doing for the Government on industrial strategy, which of course is the culmination of 40 years of Ministerial experience, or would I plough my own furrow?’
It’s doubtful he sat scratching his head for long – but what does he think of Theresa May? ‘Well…’ there is a long pause and some throat clearing. ‘That’s a big question. She has an impossible job. I don’t think she will lead the Tories into the next Election.
‘The party is deeply divided as to the sort of person or views they want in a potential leader. That gives Theresa May a strong base for survival until the party can make up its mind. She didn’t sack me, she sent the chief whip to do it, who is a very nice man and was very embarrassed. All I was doing was voting to put into legislation promises she herself had already made. An observer might feel I am almost saint-like compared with some other things.’
That sounds like an oblique reference to the various sex scandals that have hit Westminster. What does he make of that?
‘There is absolute repugnance at anyone who has indulged in what we all think of as rape. And that must be right. But the sort of banter that has been a feature of the sexual relationship since Adam and Eve – it is extremely difficult to categorise. I have noted how many ladies that I know personally have really found the whole idea of witch-hunting people for touching a knee years ago…they find it extraordinary that it has become obsessive, and that people’s memories should have been so stimulated.’
Heseltine is a divisive figure – many in the Tory Party have never forgiven him for challenging Mrs Thatcher for the leadership in 1990 – but on the subject of industrial strategy few could doubt his sincerity or his credentials.
‘Serious possibility’: Lord Heseltine believes Jezza could be the next occupant of No 10
He is one of the few politicians to have also been an entrepreneur. Initially a property developer, he went on to become one of the founders of publishing house Haymarket, where his shareholding made him a multi-millionaire. He clashed spectacularly with Mrs Thatcher in the so-called Westland affair in 1986 when he resigned in a row over the future of the UK’s last remaining helicopter manufacturer.
His comeback under John Major brought a string of Cabinet jobs and the post of Deputy Prime Minister.
Even now, the combustible Hezza of old is not far from the surface, describing Brexit as ‘the worst decision Britain has taken in peacetime in my lifetime’.
‘For the best part of a decade now people’s living standards have been frozen, so they protest, they want a change. The change on offer was Brexit, as a panacea that would solve all our problems which of course was rubbish.
‘I think it is possible we might undo it. Not likely but possible. My own view is Brexit will become increasingly unpopular and the Labour Party will respond to that. I don’t think the Government will last the Parliament and I think Brexit will be a key issue in the consequent Election.’
Jeremy Corbyn is, he believes, a ‘serious possibility’ as the next occupant of No 10. ‘I am totally amazed to hear myself saying so but yes, I do believe it.’
Lord Heseltine is a ‘One Nation Tory’ who famously in the early 1980s landed on the riot-stricken and deeply depressed city of Liverpool like a blond tornado. His energy and the measures to regenerate the city won him grudging respect even from some sworn political opponents.
Since then he has been the go-to politician for industrial revival. He produced a report on developing the economy of Teesside in 2016 following the closure of the SSI steel works in Redcar.
Five years ago, his report ‘No Stone Unturned’ set out a bold plan to devolve power from Whitehall and restore the pride of the big cities that had gloried in the industrial revolution.
The Redcar steel works which closed in 2015
Industrial strategies have failed in the past, he says, because the Left has confused them with state ownership, and his own party has never quite realised that the competitive advantages conferred by Empire and the Industrial Revolution have gone for good.
‘Two incredible ingredients in our success were military power and owning the market in the 18th and 19th Century. It was our market. When I was a child two-thirds of the world was pink,’ he says, referring to the colour used on maps of the British Empire.
Now we are up against economies like China, he says, which are pouring untold state money into their industries and infrastructure.
His remedies? Education ranks high. ‘Around a fifth of kids are in schools that are not up to standard. You can’t blame the kids if they come out without the education required for a modern competitive economy.’
He wants a Ministerial committee to look at everything government departments could be doing to boost industries from tourism to defence and a new Competitiveness Unit in the Cabinet Office.
Would our economy be stronger if he had been PM, and does he regret not being? ‘Oh no, it’s no use trying to go down that route, but we certainly would have had a much more determined devolution agenda and we would have had an industrial strategy.
‘Oh yes, I would like to have been Prime Minister.’