Michael Heseltine is a little late, his car detained by a slow-moving “handmaid’s march” protest in Piccadilly, staged by red-caped women. When he enters the restaurant, tall, unstooped, his famous mane swept back, diners’ heads turn. Hezza, “Tarzan”, Margaret Thatcher’s nemesis, is about to turn 90 but you wouldn’t guess it.
“A glass of Chablis, my lord?” says the waiter, ushering Heseltine to the table in Wiltons, an establishment restaurant in London’s St James’s. Heseltine assents, almost before he has taken his seat. “I don’t want any water, thank you. Wine is better.” He has been coming to Wiltons since the 1950s: it turns out it has also been the venue for some of the most momentous events of his life.
“Can you think of a more consequential British politician who has not been prime minister?” asked one senior British official when I mentioned I was having lunch with Heseltine. For more than 50 years he has been a key figure in British politics: pro-European, champion of Liverpool, the driving force behind Canary Wharf, toppler of Thatcher. He is now revered by a new generation as the Tory grandee who got the sack for resisting Brexit.
Heseltine quickly settles into his routine. A single glass of crisp Jean Durup Chablis, which he sips through the meal, is obviously an elixir. Any other secrets to a long life? “I sleep a lot,” he says. When he was deputy prime minister, his boss John Major would wake up early and agonise over negative press coverage. “He’d ring me early in the morning — I’d be asleep,” he chuckles.
He doesn’t dwell over the menu. “I like leek and potato soup a lot,” he says. He normally has plaice goujons but is forced to deviate: “They haven’t got plaice today, so I’ll go for some sole.” I order seafood from Devon, crab and smoked eel. But I’m not here for the food: Heseltine is a living history book and his memory is razor-sharp.
Heseltine first entered the nation’s consciousness in 1976 when — after a row with Labour over an alleged breach of protocol — he took the unusual step of grabbing the mace, the golden symbol of royal authority in the House of Commons, and brandishing it at his socialist opponents. Heseltine insists he was wielding the mace in “a very ordered way”, but that wasn’t how the cartoonists saw it. The blond, dashing Heseltine was forever after portrayed as Tarzan, king of the political jungle.
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