Michael Heseltine

(b. 1933)

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(b. Swansea, 21 Mar. 1933)

British; Secretary of State for Environment 1979–83, Defence 1983–6, Environment 1990–2, Trade and Industry 1992–5, Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Privy Seal 1995–7; Baron (life peer) 2001 Heseltine's father was a steel company manager, wealthy enough to send his son to Shrewsbury School. At Oxford University he was president of the Union. He was first elected as Conservative MP for Tavistock in 1966. As a young MP he made himself financially independent, making money from property development and publishing and founding the Haymarket Press. He was a millionaire by the time he was 30. In February 1974 he became the member for Henley.

In 1979 Mrs Thatcher made him Secretary of State for Environment. He presided over the popular policy of selling council houses to tenants. Much of the period was spent in conflict with local government as he tried to bear down on its spending. His 1981 green paper ruled out a poll tax as unfair and unworkable. Heseltine also believed that the government had a role to play in helping run-down inner cities.

Following the riots in Liverpool in 1981 he became de facto Minister for Merseyside. His call for a major investment to fight urban poverty and regenerate the inner cities was blocked by the Treasury.

In 1983 Mrs Thatcher moved him to defence. She needed a more persuasive spokesman to deal with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the women protestors at Greenham Common. His relations with Mrs Thatcher were never close. They were different kinds of Conservative, she suspected his political ambitions, and he believed the government should do more to combat unemployment. Rival schemes to rescue the ailing Westland Helicopter Company at the end of 1985 brought the two of them into conflict. Heseltine favoured a European-backed rescue bid, Mrs Thatcher and the Department of Trade and Industry favoured an American-backed one. When Mrs Thatcher, in an effort to contain the public row, insisted that all future statements should be cleared with the Cabinet office, a frustrated Heseltine abruptly collected his papers and left a Cabinet meeting. Cabinet colleagues only learnt subsequently that he had resigned. In subsequent public statements he made his resignation a matter of constitutional principle, claiming that he had been denied the right to put his case to Cabinet.

On the back benches Heseltine kept himself in the public eye. He visited over 200 constituency associations and made clear that he was available—if and when there was a leadership vacancy. Whenever Mrs Thatcher's position weakened his own stock rose. He supported privatization and trade union reform, but was more supportive of the European Community and favoured a more active role for government in the economy. His critics on the right dismissed him as a corporatist.

His opportunity came following the resignation speech of Sir Geoffrey Howe in November 1990. He stood in the annual leadership election and, although Margaret Thatcher defeated Heseltine by 200 votes to 152, this margin was four short of the required 15 per cent majority and a great achievement for the challenger. Mrs Thatcher was persuaded to stand down and on the second ballot John Major was elected.


Subjects: Politics.

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