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Not getting on well with Margaret Thatcher


What went wrong for Michael Heseltine?
Anthony Howard Writer
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What went wrong? Well, what went wrong, I suppose, was Margaret Thatcher. He and she never got on. I think partly Michael's fault. Michael is sufficiently old-fashioned to have hated the idea of having a woman boss. In that sense, he is like Soames Forsyte, as I mentioned. And therefore, the chemistry never worked. On the whole, she liked sort of good-looking men, but she didn't like Michael. And there came the great fall-out in 1986 over Westland. He resigned from the government. And of course, the great achievement, and I don't think people pay enough to this… that every other single person who fell out with Margaret and resigned, just sort of went into oblivion.

Michael was able, between those years, 1986, when he resigned, and 1990, when he ran against her for leadership, to keep himself in business. He flogged himself every Friday night around the, sort of, rubber chicken circuit. He went to ever constituency that would invite him. He kept his name in the frame. When people drew up odds as to who would be the next Prime Minister, he was usually right up there in the front. And that was, for a backbench MP, a very considerable achievement. And of course, one of the reasons why he could do it was because he was a very untypical member of parliament of his day and age, that he had made his fortune, and it had become a fortune again, before he went into the House of Commons. That meant he could afford to have a staff, he could afford to have a chauffeur. I mean, the driver who came with him out of the government service, is still with him, and, you know, not many MPs can be able to afford to say to their driver when they'd been a minister, 'Okay, George, are you going to come with me? I'll pay you from now on'. But Michael could do all that, and that was a great help, having that sort of independence of, you know, private wealth, which he'd all made himself, gave him.

So he did it. And he, I think, really did think, when it came to 1990, that he was in with a real chance. And the fact is, he would have become Prime Minister. That if the second ballot had been between Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine… when in the first ballot, she got 204 votes, he got 152, I have not the slightest doubt in my mind that he would have won and she would have been defeated. Because she knew that, and all her cabinet colleagues knew that, that they forced her to stand down, and she really was arm-locked into standing down.

Then, of course, John Major came on the scene and that, for a number of Tory MPs, was enough. There'd been a change and therefore, when Major and Douglas Hurd threw their hats into the ring, it was really all over for Michael. He was, that day, driving to plant a tree, I think in the zoo, when this, sort of, bombshell announcement came, that Margaret Thatcher was giving up and was resigning. I think I once asked him, I said, you know, 'Did you know, from that moment on?' And he said, 'Yeah, I knew. I knew'. And he went through with it, he sort of dug up the earth, put the tree... planted it, but it must have been a pretty gruesome moment, and I think he was enough of a professional politician to know that his chances of beating Major, as opposed to beating Thatcher, were pretty slight. And as it was, his vote went down and he got about 130-odd votes, Major got 180 votes, Douglas Hurd got, sort of, 59 or 60 or something, but it was clear-cut enough for there not to be a second rerun, although technically Major hadn't met the requirements, which were... you know 15% majority and all that kind of thing. Nonetheless, it was clear that Major had got home. It was, of course, a tremendous injustice. I mean, I say nothing against John Major, very nice man. But any idea that Major has the talent that Michael has got, any idea that, you know, he was the kind of public powerful figure that Michael Heseltine was, was absolute nonsense. And I'm afraid the Tory party cut off its nose to spite its face, and was electing Major because they couldn't forgive the regicide, the person who plunged the dagger into the previous leader. They made a terrible mistake.

Now, whether Heseltine would have won the 1997 election or even the 1992 election, which Major did win, to be fair to him, I don't know. I think he'd probably certainly have won in 1992, and oddly enough, he'd done it before. He told me that afterwards. I think he would have been perfectly justified. Had he been elected, the election took place in November 1990, he was going to say, look, I recognise that I've come up to Number 10 by a very unconventional route. I have not been elected, I have come straight into the cabinet from being a backbencher. It is therefore right that the electorate should make their own decision. I am therefore proposing that an election take place in January 1991, and we will have a short break for Christmas, but as soon as the Christmas holiday is over, we will go into campaigning mode. And that's what he would have done. In my mind, there was absolutely no doubt he would have won. Easily, hands-down, he'd then have had five years, anyway, from '91 to '96, and whether he could have won the next election after that, I rather doubt, because Tony Blair, who'd already been leader of the Labour Party, things had changed. But I think he would certainly have won his first election. And it was interesting he took that view, because it is almost unprecedented for someone to vault from the backbenches straight into sitting at the centre of the cabinet table. It's never been done, and I said that to Michael at the time. I said, 'I don't think it can work, Michael, because, you know, there's no precedent for it'. He said, 'I don't care about precedent. It's going to work'. I think the reason why not a single… no, one cabinet minister voted for him, one member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet voted for him. The reason that all the others didn't wasn't because they necessarily disliked him, it was because they didn't like the idea, or found it uncomfortable, of someone who'd been a backbencher, you now, last week suddenly being their boss, sitting at the middle of the cabinet table the next week. And I think that played a part in the fact that the… all the cabinet on the first ballot, bar one, voted for Thatcher. And they wouldn't have voted for her in the second ballot, all of them, but nonetheless, they didn't like the idea of this kind of, you know, jumped up Johnny-come-lately suddenly being plunged in to being the head of government.

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: Westland Aircraft, Westland Helicopters, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine, Soames Forsyte, John Major, Douglas Richard Hurd, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair

Duration: 6 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018