Lord Heseltine has seen it all on the frontline of British politics. Seven Hills chairman and Change Makers podcast host Michael Hayman meets him at home.
“How many politicians does anyone remember?” asks Lord Heseltine – resolute that his mark on British public life, along with the other big beasts of the political jungle, is merely temporary.
He reveals the answer to me for the Change Makers podcast: “I have no illusions that politics is very much here today, gone tomorrow.”
We’re sat together amid 70 acres of glorious gardens at Thenford House, alongside his three dogs, Fred, Fergus and Fritz. This trio of disruptors have decided to join us and Heseltine knows who calls the shots. ‘I have no authority over these dogs,’ he says. And I can tell you, on this he wasn’t wrong.
‘Exciting, changing, unpredictable.’ Not words describing a life in business and politics, but the ever-changing nature of the gardens that he and his wife, Lady Ann Heseltine, have spent almost 50 years transforming.
Walking through them with him, you get a sense that this has truly been the project of his life. Even during his government years, he revealed: ‘I would come back home with the red boxes at a weekend, go through them on a Saturday morning and then walk out into the gardens. Everything was then left behind.’
I first met Michael Heseltine in the 1980s. And our paths have crossed in every decade since. So, I knew from the get-go that this encounter would be no story of a drift into rural dotage. He remains as sharp today as he was at the dispatch box, even aged 90 and with his famous blonde mane now a snowy white.
He still stands tall at more than 6’2”, with the posture of a much younger man. On the outside a political giant, but within a much more nuanced figure: ‘[Ambition] means much less than is attributed to me. I think as a young person I was quite nervous. I’m not a great social communicator.’
For a person famed for their communication ability, it’s quite a revelation. But let’s be clear, he’s never short of an idea to make you think.
‘Do something that makes you look forward to Monday morning,’ he says, but with a word of warning for those merely tempted to follow in his footsteps: ‘If you’re only thinking about [getting into politics], then don’t. You’re not up for the stress, the strain, the relentless pressure and the inevitable criticism.’
For Heseltine, he was to learn the truth of this, when in 1986 he resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, going on to challenge her for the leadership four years later.
If you’re thinking about getting into politics, don’t
Despite this, he contests that it was not a conspiracy to bring her down: ‘That really wasn’t true. I was surviving. I was determined I wouldn’t have my career destroyed by what I regarded as Margaret’s unacceptable behaviour. But it wasn’t geared to getting rid of her. Inevitably she would have gone.’
He put those survival skills to good use during his years outside Cabinet, as a passionate campaigner for closer relations with Europe. It is a cause he remains equally fervent about today, calling Brexit ‘undoubtedly the biggest mistake we’ve made in half a century… probably a century.’
His other great cause was far from the Westminster bubble, championing regeneration in Liverpool in the 1980s – a time he says changed him: ‘I realised the over-simplification of party politics is frankly not part of the real world, which is much more complex. And I also came face-to-face with poverty of a sort I had never experienced.’
Yet amid that poverty, he saw entrepreneurialism – not least from the children who would follow him to persistently ask for autographs. ‘It was only later I found out they were flogging them off for 50p a time… I wish I’d thought of it myself.’
He laughs at the memory, but the serious nature of inequality is never far from his mind. He remains committed to regional empowerment, making the case for greater devolution: ‘I know it would transform this country if it was done with passion, commitment and enthusiasm.’
Passion, commitment and enthusiasm are a fitting description for this titan of public life. But it was where we began our conversation – his true legacy – that we ended: Thenford and the spectacular gardens it hosts: ‘This will last. And that’s the difference between the political memories. This will be around.’
Michael Hayman hosts the Change Makers podcast and is Chair and co-founder of Seven Hills.
You can listen to Change Makers with Lord Heseltine from 18th October at changemakers.works and wherever you get your podcasts.