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What went wrong for Michael Heseltine?


Michael Heseltine had hoped to be Prime Minister
Anthony Howard Writer
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Michael was really, by now, on his way, but he always thought it was important the impression you created. So by about 1961 or perhaps even before that, certainly when I was... because I moved into Stafford Terrace, too, and lived in his own flat there with him, which I think I did pay rent for. But he already had a chauffeur... a chauffeur with a peaked cap and he had a Jaguar, this kind of thing. And the Jaguar used to take me half the way to the New Statesman, where I was then working. And he understood about making an impression and how important these appurtenances of wealth were. And he was doing very well, and the property business was doing very well. And then he made one minor mistake in property, in that he sort of started building, I think it was, a housing estate at Tenterden in Kent.

And these houses just didn't sell. I don't know many there were, there were about, sort of, 12 of them, or something. And he used to go down every weekend to try and, sort of, persuade buyers to put some money down, and no one would, and in the end, a man came along and said, 'You're having a bit of difficulty here, aren't you?' And he said, 'Well, you may say so'. He said, 'I'll tell you what. I'll buy the show house and I'll buy it only for half the asking price', or something. And so he bought it and then gradually, I think they got rid of the rest. And not at a great profit. That was something called Bastion Properties, which was his property company. But then he made his fatal mistake, which was he decided he wanted to go into publishing, and... magazine publishing. And he bought a, sort of, pretty down-at-heel Tailor & Cutter kind of magazine called Town, or Man About Town, it was called, Man About Town at first. And he transformed it. It became quite a good magazine. I mean, it was rival to Queen, which was run by Jocelyn Stevens, and it really did look pretty good. But it never made a penny piece.

And then he bought, very foolishly and against my advice, a British weekly news magazine which had never flourished, but had been through about three owners, and it was called Topic. And he bought Topic in, I think it must have been, 1961, probably. And that ate money. I mean, he had, by now, offices in the Edgware Road, 86 to 88 Edgware Road, I think it was. And he had to hire staff to run this. He hired some very good people: Nick Tomalin, Clive Irving, people like that. Ron Hall. And they produced not too bad a paper, but... I wrote for it once or twice, did some profiles of people for them, and roundups of the week, politics, that kind of thing.

And it staggered on, from… I think Michael must have bought it, and I begged him not to, he must have bought it in about June or May perhaps, and it staggered on till December. Just before Christmas, he had to close it. He was then deeply in debt and was about to go bankrupt, and he went to his bank manager and the bank manager said, you know, he said what he wanted was, I think, to pay the bills for Topic, sort of a quarter of a million pounds. And he said, 'What have you got for security?' So he handed over… by then, I think he'd moved out of the flat, or was living in a house somewhere in Gilston Road, or something. He handed over the deeds of the house, he handed over his watch and everything else, and he got the advance, he got the loan. And the man said at the end of the meeting, he said, 'Well, Mr Heseltine, I hope all goes well. Today is my last day at the bank, I'll wish you luck'. Michael said if it hadn't been his last day at the bank, I don't think he'd have given me the loan. But he got the loan, and gradually, though it took a long time, managed to build up again and within, I think, two or three years, had sort of paid off his creditors, though whether he ever paid them off at sort of 20 shillings to the pound, I don't know. I think they may have had to accept less than that. But he did. And of course he knew that if he'd gone bankrupt, any chance of a political career would have been over. And therefore, it was very important to him to keep, as it were, afloat. And he did keep afloat.

He'd already fought two seats: he'd fought a Welsh seat, Gower, in 1959, which is what got him out of the Guards in the army, because he was a political candidate and you couldn't be that and an officer at the same time, and then he fought against, I think it was Maurice Edelman, in Coventry, in the 1964 election. He took the Coventry seat very seriously, and I think for one period... Macmillan had been Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home was now Prime Minister, but he used to go out there a lot in his Jaguar, and I think for a short period, he even persuaded himself he could win it. He didn't win it.

But then he had a real break, and he got this seat in Devon, which was... can't even remember what it was called... oh dear, what was it called now? It's gone from me. But anyway, it was sort of a blue chip seat, and he managed to get adopted for that in succession to a Conservative MP, therefore, you know, he was sitting as tenant-in-possession. And he must have sat… it was… it wasn't… what was it called? Tavistock. Tavistock. And he sat for Tavistock, I think I'm right in saying, from '66 to '74, and then there was a sort of merging of seats, and therefore he was, sort of, out of… I think he could have, sort of, fought for one of the remaining ones, but he decided that the journey was too far and all the rest of it, and, with typical, kind of, confidence, said, 'Okay, I'll just put my bread on the waters and see what happens'. And he had been a, sort of, junior member of the Heath administration, Minister of Aviation, I think it was called, or Aerospace, I think it was called. And he then got the blue chip seat of Henley, which he represented for the next 33 years, or thereabouts, from '64 to '97, was it? '74 to '97, so that's 23 years. And I think it took a bit of nerve to actually give up a seat and say, I'll just put it all at risk, but he had the self-confidence to do that, and I think he was… Henley was happy with him, and he was happy with Henley, it was within, you know, drivable distance from London easily enough, and he bought this great manor house at Thenford.

And there he, you know, he still lives. I think Thenford is just outside the constituency, but it's near enough for it to be run from there, and he used to have great garden parties for the Women's Section and every year... the Young Conservatives and that kind of thing. So he did pretty well. Of course, he always intended to be Prime Minister, and there's this famous story which I think I believe. It's owed to his great friend Julian Critchley. He actually, on the back of an envelope when they were both at Oxford, drew up a battle plan which ended 1990s, Number 10. And I think he did think he could do it.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: New Statesman, Bastion Properties, Tenterden, Tailor & Cutter, Town, Man About Town, Queen, Topic, Coventry, Tavistock, Gower, Thenford House, Henley, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine, Jocelyn Edward Greville Stevens, Nick Tomalin, Clive Irving, Ron Hall, Maurice Edelman, Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home, Maurice Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton, Edward Richard George Heath, Julian Michael Gordon Critchley

Duration: 6 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018