It was a tumultuous time in British politics. Prime minister John Major had just resigned as leader of the Conservative party in a desperate attempt to get his critics to put up or shut up.
All eyes were on Michael Heseltine, whose challenge to Margaret Thatcher in 1990 destroyed the Iron Lady’s premiership. Major’s fate appeared to be in Hezza’s hands. Would he slay another Tory prime minister? No – days later, he affirmed his loyalty to Major, who made him deputy prime minister.
The night I met him, he was in good spirits. The occasion was a reception at B.A.T Industries, the owner of Eagle Star, the insurance company I worked for. We had something in common: when he returned to government under Major as environment secretary he set up a competition called City Challenge. Inner city areas had to bid for funding by partnering with the private sector. I was seconded by B.A.T Industries to Lambeth Council to bid for funding for Brixton. Hezza had reportedly told Lambeth not to bother as jt had no chance. (The Tories had long memories of Lambeth’s left wing leadership in the 1980s under Red Ted Knight.) It seemed a daunting assignment.
Lambeth listened. We put together a community partnership to present to the London directors of the Department of the Environment. We held our presentation at Stockwell Park School, and I drafted speeches for the various participants. I wrote a briefing paper that set the case for Lambeth, pointing out that Brixton had produced a prime minister, reference to John Major, who made much of his humble origins. Against the odds, we won.
I was proud of the part I played, and enjoyed reminding Heseltine of Brixton’s triumph. Yet I was uneasy about the fact that the fate of people living in deprived areas was influenced by a competition. Surely governments have a responsibility for improving their lives, rather than leaving it to the whims of a competition? And the project ran into difficulties later, perhaps proving the doubters right.
Michael Heseltine was one of the most influential British politicians of the past 50 years. Born in Swansea in the 1930s, he was a successful businessman before entering politics. He was a passionate European who believed governments should play an active role in the economy and industry. (He promised to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner” to promote British business.) He famously walked out of Thatcher’s cabinet in 1986 over the Westland affair – a now largely forgotten row about the future of the Westland helicopter company.
As the Tory party became more hostile to Europe, Heseltine’s star faded, but he remained one of the party’s star performers. Even in the run up to the Tories’ disastrous 1997 general election, his performances on BBC Radio’s Today programme were box office gold – compelling listening even for those of us keen to see the end of 18 years of Conservative rule.