You have to give it to Michael Heseltine, the one-time Tarzan of the Tory Party, like some old boxer who never quite made it, he still thinks he can land the punches and have another day in the ring.
This week he was at it again, publishing a self-indulgent and worthy report about what was wrong with the economy.
But his style is from a past era and his moves are now well out of date, to the extent that, frankly, it was embarrassing.
He used to come out of the blue corner – his blond mane flowing, his rhythmic rhetoric rousing the rabble – but such has politics moved on, that this time he emerged from the red corner, although, sadly, he wasn’t aware of it himself. The man who, as the self-important President of the Board of Trade (a title he asked to be revived and bestowed upon him) famously said he would intervene before breakfast to save British business – when government meddling was the cause of so many problems rather than the cure – has clearly confused his left jab with his right hook.
If a platitude was walking down the other side of the street, Michael Heseltine would dodge all the busy traffic to cross the road, shake its hand and embrace it. If a cliché was sitting on a park bench, Michael Hesletine would sit down next to it and seduce it.
A great performer at party conference because of all his theatrical moves, his undoubted presence and athletic reach (compared to the likes of the tubby Jim Prior), my abiding memory is that when you actually read Heseltine speeches they were as hollow as a jungle drum.
Don’t take my word for it, go to the library and look up “Great Speeches of Michael Hesletine”, or “Collected thoughts of Tarzan the Tory Terror”, and you will find Mills & Boon is more popular, DIY bibles are more available and even “The Sex Life of the Common House Fly” is in greater demand than the remaindered histrionics of Heseltine’s hubris.
So what did the great windbag say this time?
Essentially, it was the same old Marxist-Lenninist guff made to be acceptable because it was in the interest of British business. Put simply, Michael Heseletine thinks that what is necessary is a strategy, not just any old strategy, but a grand strategy where local enterprise agencies pick the winners and invest in the future.
And the money for this? Well, Heseltine has identified a whopping £50 billion that he wants moved from central government “to the regions” so the local agencies can revive the economy. Fifty billion quid? That’s more than we spend on the UK’s defence and more than we spend on the interest on our national debt. David Cameron’s opponents call the PM “posh” but what planet does the real millionaire Heseltine actually live on? Certainly not Planet Poverty.
Two things strike me as blindingly obvious.
If there is 50 billion of mullah that is so easy to come by then why not simply reduce the burden on everyone and cut our taxes? Is it that the money’s not really there (maybe because it’s borrowed from the future?) or is it that Heseltine believes a brigade of bureaucrats know how to spend it better than those from whom it’s been taken?
The other point is that the Scottish share of 50 billion is five billion. Whether Heseltine has thought about this or not I can’t say, but either the 50 billion is for the UK – in which case Scotland will also get its chunk – or it is solely for England (in which case Scotland will get an additional amount calculated by the Barnett formula, pushing the total cost up to 55 billion). Either way Scotland would get five billion, which is a humungous amount of money; enough to keep not just Alex Salmond in curries for the rest of his life, but possibly all our MSP’s too (if they pass on the pakoras).
Now I’ve been known to like a curry or three, but really, I’d rather have lower taxes and decide if I want a curry or a kebab; a pasta or a pan-fried duck than let our MSPs have more. The trouble with people like Heseltine is that they think they and their squadrons know what we want to eat, know what businesses need and they think it’s the government’s money – when it’s actually ours. They take it off us and then expect us to be thankful when they spend it on us.
Michael Hesletine is living in the past, indeed so far back in antiquity that if he produced his report in the days of not just the ducking and diving Tony Blair, but that southpaw Bomber Brown and the pugilist John Reid that he would have been dismissed as more left wing than Dennis Skinner.
Like Tony Benn, God bless his cotton socks, Heseltine is an old circus act; he was that boxer all-comers in the audience were invited to fight. But now his best hope is a rumble in the jungle, and that’s where he should be sent – for posterity.