Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, was at the CBI dinner in Glasgow on Thursday night, reminding us that he, as a politician, remains in the highest class. His health seemed fully recovered from the heart attack he suffered last summer; his marbles are complete and firmly in place.
He made it an interesting evening for the interpreters of runes and the examiners of entrails and a livelier night than the hacks had been expecting. In response to concerns voiced by Mr Howard Davies, director-general of the CBI, he threw away the nine pages which had been circulated to them in advance and, extempore, delivered a coded rebuke to Michael Portillo.
In a letter leaked in August, Mr Portillo, while Chief Secretary at the Treasury, had written to Mr Heseltine in blunt and even insolent terms, attacking him for his failure to come up with spending cuts and offering a list of schemes for the Department of Trade and industry to chop.
Mr Heseltine, after many years in Government at the highest levels and in many ministerial manifestations, must have felt irritation at this pup yapping at his heels. He has avoided any intemperate response, but on Thursday night gave fair warning that that the old tiger has a few teeth left.
He was suave, the touch was light. He had, he said, rung up the party’s Central Office to get a few jokes. The Joke Department, he had been told, was closed because ”there isn’t much left to laugh about”.
In his time, he continued with a dry irony clearly aimed at Mr Portillo, he had spent more public money than any other Minister — on Concorde, Maplin, the Channel Tunnel. ”Now, in the twilight of my career, I tour the country saying thank you.” His talent was to ”spend the money faster than you can ever make it”.
Without ever mentioning Mr Portillo, he demolished his case against interventionism. He praised Glasgow’s renaissance: urban renewal was the fruit of partnership. And he could not have made clearer his commitment to his White Paper on Competitiveness, published in May, which endorses schemes of the kind Mr Portillo wanted to stop.
Mr Heseltine is, of course, reviled by the Thatcherite wing of which Mr Portillo is the standard bearer. It was his challenge for the leadership which led to Mrs Thatcher’s resignation in November 1990. In the Thatcherite demonology Heseltine is Lucifer.
His ironic reference to the twilight of his career was also coded, implying the opposite. Watch it, he was probably saying to the Portillo camp: I’m not out of it yet. When Mr Major’s position seemed terminally shaky a few months ago, the name of Heseltine resounded round the lobbies once more. The keenness of the Thatcherites to stop him probably explained their ill-judged attempts to push Mr Portillo prematurely to the fore.
Mr Heseltine’s appeal as a politician comes not just from the gifts of impassioned rhetoric which made him the darling of the Tory conference for so many years. Nor is it because that on many areas he has shown prescience and good judgment — favouring urban renewal before it became a fashionable idea and warning against the poll tax from the beginning.
Nor is it because he has shown himself capable of putting principle before personal interest, as he did when he walked out of the Cabinet in 1986 over what he regarded as the gross misrepresentation of his part in the Westland helicopter affair.
What sticks in the public memory is something he would clearly rather forget — that moment in the Commons in 1977, during a row over the Bill to nationalise the aircraft and shipbuilding industries, when he swung the Mace and earned himself the nickname ”Tarzan”.
On Thursday night, John Ward, chairman of the CBI in Scotland, presented him with a splendid glass replica of the Mace. There was a rumbling laugh from the audience, a deep growl of pleasure.
Mr Heseltine, looking a trifle rueful, remarked that it was a ”dirty rotten trick” but accepted it with good grace. And he sent the final coded message of an evening of coded messages by telling an anecdote of General Franco on his death bed in 1975. Supporters had gathered outside and Franco heard the noise of the crowd. Why had they come? he asked. To say farewell, he was told. Where, he said, are they going?
‘His ironic reference to the twilight of his career was also coded, implying the opposite. Watch it, he was probably saying to the Portillo camp: I’m not out of it