Press Conference With...LORD HESELTINE

By Rob McGibbon

Mention you are interviewing Michael Heseltine and people are instantly interested. His name produces a strange sense of fascination, even affection. I can’t think of another old Tory from the Thatcher era who could instil such a reaction. And I am not exactly sure why.

I guess he is memorably charismatic, a rare breed of politician who said it straight. But I don’t recall his policies particularly, or his political achievements. I remember him resigning over the Westland affair and his involvement in the Matrix Churchill scandal, although the details of each are hazy. I recall him standing against Margaret Thatcher, but losing to John Major. He became Deputy Prime Minister and then I remember that painful photograph of him after a heart attack.

Of course, there is the Tarzan nickname and the unforgettable demented Spitting Image puppet, and then I know about his glorious arboretum of some 3,500 trees, which he has planted in the 50 acres of his Oxfordshire estate.

And then there is Heseltine the businessman who built the magazine company Haymarket from scratch to be one of Britain’s leading private companies. It publishes more than 100 trade, consumer and contract titles and licences them around the world. Haymarket turns over £190m a year and has given 72-year-old Lord H the No.226 slot on the new Sunday Times Rich List – with a family fortune estimated at £241m. Actually, when you consider the extraordinary multiple dimensions to Hezza’s life, it is no wonder we are intrigued.

We meet at Haymarket’s HQ in Hammersmith, West London, where he works three days a week. I expect a dynamic, forceful character, but he is low key, almost distant at times. He has a delightful baritone haw haw haw chuckle that is vintage Belgravia, and eyebrow bristles that seem to be reaching for the ceiling. I am to be granted 30 minutes, but he remains impeccably polite when I am still there an hour later.

Haymarket is flying high. How does that make you feel?

I have an immense sense of pride at what we have achieved. There were three of us in 1957 and now there are 2,000. But the big thing is the excitement of the pace of growth. We have six subsidiaries overseas in the world’s biggest economies, and they are all growing as mini Haymarkets.

You were not involved with Haymarket during your political career, but came back in 1997.

What impact have you had since then?

I nudged the business into an international dimension. I had spent so much time travelling the world, I had a feel that if we could do it well in one country there was a sporting chance that we might be able to do it in some others. It was a perspective I got from government, but a formative experience was going to see Terry Mansfield of Natmags in ’97. I was waiting in his reception area and he had 30- something editions of Cosmopolitan on the wall. I thought, ‘That is very interesting, we don’t have anything like that.’ And so I came back and I said, ‘Look, why don’t we see what we can do with some of our magazines overseas.’

You have made the business grow enormously by licensing your titles.

Yes. It has made a huge difference. For example, F1 Racing magazine – there are roughly 30 of those and there are 20 or so of Auto Car. Now there is a Campaign Middle East, a Campaign Romania. We license our brands while retaining complete quality control. We have a team of people who are exploiting our licence opportunities all over the world and if they keep up what they have shown they can do, we might have 150 licences in two or three years time.

This is undoubtedly a lucrative company, but I can’t help wondering if it is enough for you.

Do you miss the profile, the cut and thrust of politics?

I do not distinguish between this and politics. I have always said that I will be remembered for my trees and the arboretum that we have recreated. I am never one who spends his time moaning about the past.

I had a privileged political career. But it was over.

We lost the election. End of story, good night.

I have never looked back. It takes no part of my waking life. I was so lucky to have known where I was going – back to Haymarket. I always get asked about not being Prime Minister, and I always say I would like to have been. And I discover that an increasing number of people think I might have been all right.

You have openly backed David Cameron to lead the Conservative Party. What do you think of the press coverage he has had – should he have answered the drug question?

No, absolutely not. Once you start answering that question, there will be a second question and a third, then a fourth – and it would go into more detail of what he did and didn’t do across a whole range of activities. Once you have answered the first one, why won’t you answer the second?

What the press were inviting people to think is that this is something horrid, appalling and unacceptable. In actual fact, Cameron almost certainly has come out strengthened by the process.

There has been a baptism under fire and people are impressed by his ability to handle it and remain firm.

It was a gutsy decision not to bow to the inquisitorial approach that was attempted by the press.

Do you know the answer to the drug question, and were you ever asked it during your political times?

I don’t know the answer and I don’t care. I don’t know whether I was or not, I can’t remember. God knows what I was or wasn’t asked, when or how.

Well, for the hell of it, can I ask you?

No.

Why not?

Because having said that Cameron was quite right not to answer it, why should I break ranks?

Do you think the Tories must play the press better if they are to have power again?

The first vital thing is to have a relationship with the public. The press will follow – kicking and screaming in some cases. To have a good relationship with some of the press you might have to sell out the independence that you have craved for to be true to yourself. When I think of some of the proprietors that we have had, pandering to their whims and fancies, it is not the way I would ever have been prepared to act as leader of the Tory party. I have great doubts about foreigners owning our newspapers.

What do you think about someone like Alastair Campbell and the legacy of New Labour spin?

I don’t understand why the journalists put up with it.

Of course, there has always been spin and leaks. In my lifetime most of it has favoured the Conservatives. The Labour party used to get terrible treatment from Fleet Street – well deserved in my view, because they were so extreme Left and crazy.

That changed and with New Labour we saw a professionalism.

I do not know if Peter Mandelson was the architect, or Campbell, but they were the exponents.

How did they get away with it? All this shouting down the phone at journalists and threats. Journalists are the life-blood of a free society, warts and all.

People of great integrity, but I think they allowed themselves to be subjected to treatment that they must themselves know was reprehensible.

What is your worst experience at the hands of the press?

There are several. I think I am going to choose the Matrix Churchill affair, but I have to say the press saved me in the ’80s. In ’86 (when he resigned as Defence Secretary over Westland) I was determined to survive. I was not going to allow this appalling behaviour by the Prime Minister to kill my career.

Instead of coming back to Haymarket, I thought: Right, I will remain active in politics. Here I was, this guy who had apparently let the great leader down. The serious newspapers were very pro- Thatcher and the proprietors were passionately pro-Thatcher. But for four years I remained in the forefront of politics because the press kept me there.

They came to me, they quoted me, they reported me.

By the end of the ’80s, Stewart Steven brought The Mail on Sunday out for me, Max Hastings wanted to bring out The Telegraph, but was stopped by Conrad Black. Andrew Neil brought The Sunday Times out for me, even though Murdoch tried to stop him.

Murdoch rang him, but Andrew told him where to go. That’s why if Andrew rings and wants me on his programme, if I can do it, I’ll do it. I pay my debts.

Slowly my reputation in the Conservative party built until I was the most popular Conservative.

So, when I talk about my worst experience, it is very important that I balance what I say with the realisation that without the press I would never have got back into Government.

Well, with that puff for the press sorted, you can now take a good run up and put the boot in.

Matrix Churchill – this is the one that absolutely infuriated me. Allegations were made that certain Ministers had connived, plotted or acquiesced in sending these guys to prison. Well, I was speechless.

I had gone to extreme lengths to make sure that what I knew as a Minister was conveyed to the judge, which indicated quite clearly to me that something was very odd about the prosecution.

Anyway, the press ran a story and I was named.

I said to my press officer at the time: "Keep these pieces because this is something up with which I will not put." When the Scott Inquiry completely exonerated me I said to the press officer: "Get the press cuttings, they are going to answer to this."

I took legal opinion and I was told that in order to make libel stick as a Minister, you not only have to prove that the press comment was wrong, you have to prove it was written with malice. That’s preposterous. There was no way I could prove that.

There was nothing I could do and yet one’s personal integrity had been absolutely torn to shreds.

I would love to have conducted a libel case against some very respectable and renowned commentators who should have known a great deal better.

After your heart attack in Venice in 1993 you were photographed in a fairly ragged state.

How did you feel about that?

I was furious. Furious. It was sod’s law. I wasn’t feeling too bad so I thought: Right, I have got to give these monkeys a chance. We agreed on just one photo opportunity and then we were going into a walled garden where the helicopter was waiting. I wore a huge blue rosette on my bathrobe. Out we went, big smile, blue rosette, it all worked like a dream.

I thought: "Conquering Hero Returns." Perfect.

Then I had to get out of the chair into the helicopter and I put my foot down. One of the side effects of the pills I’d had was to introduce gout. It was agony. It was nothing to do with the heart attack, but I stumbled and looked awful. And these monkeys had found a hole in the walled garden.

Click, click, click, and that picture appeared everywhere.

I had tried to fix it, but they had beaten me and had found a way round my carefully laid plans. I was determined to orchestrate it, just as they were determined to get the bad shot. I lost.

What is the most outrageous allegation made to you?

I had a conversation with Conrad Black. It was late at night at a party at the Conservative conference in the late ’80s. At one stage he said: "Your trouble is you are anti-American." I have never heard such a preposterous allegation. This guy, who I had never met, had huge power in this country, believed I was anti-American. After all I had been through – with the CND business, deployment of American nuclear weapons. I don’t want to get dramatic about it, but after facing the mobs in very violent circumstances to be told by some proprietor that I was anti-American – I was flabbergasted.

And what do you think of his, erm, situation now, any relish?

What is the point? Least said, soonest mended.

The "Tarzan" nickname. How have you felt about that and how would you have reacted if I had walked in today and said, "Alright, Tarzan?"

Well, I would have been mildly surprised, but I am very happy about the name. Being called Tarzan does you no harm at all. If you go back to Spitting Image, I was always shown as a manic lunatic, hair all over the place, eyes staring. If there was a picture of the Cabinet, I would be under the table with a bomb, but this was an endearing character. You get this recogniseablity from television and a lot of people say hello, particularly some of the black people. Even today, I will walk past a building site and get called Tarzan. I wave.

In closing, I find myself asking about the arboretum: I was wondering if your arboretum is ever open to the public. Is it possible to visit?

[Flummoxed] Well no, not really.

I suddenly feel as if I have just asked to pop over to his place for a nose around… It’s a pity because I have a bit of a passion for things like that, it sounds wonderful.

Later that day, an email arrives from Lord H’s PA. "Hi Rob. Please may I have your address. Lord Heseltine would like to invite you to one of his garden parties."

Well, I never!

 

 

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Copyright Rob McGibbon 2005. All Rights Reserved

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