LONDON — “You have changed your mind since the excellent speech you made in the referendum campaign arguing we should remain in the European Union. I have not.”
That was the withering remark with which Lord Heseltine signed-off a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May in March. He had just been sacked from an advisory role by the prime minister. His crime: Backing plans to give MPs a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal.
Five months have passed since Heseltine was fired, and he remains unmoved. His disdain for Brexit is undimmed.
The former deputy prime minister, who served in Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s governments, sits ponderously in the armchair of his Soho office.
This is no gung-ho Remainer. Heseltine selects his words carefully and is wary of playing up to the ‘Project Fear’ narrative that dogged Europhiles during the referendum campaign. But still, he can see nothing positive in Britain’s retreat from the EU.
“We’re a deeply divided country. There is no agreement in favour of Brexit from a very large number of the population. There is no agreement within government,” he told Business Insider.
“It’s an unprecedented situation. Other issues are all the usual political divides. Brexit is trans-party. It means a long period of uncertainty and all the adverse consequences that flow from that.”
Heseltine says the government is gripped by “paralysis” after June’s general election, when May’s party lost 13 seats despite being widely tipped to increase its parliamentary majority. Her weakened hand has made Brexit divides more pronounced, he says, and the split through her top team has boiled over into newspaper briefing.
Largely targeted at Philip Hammond, the chancellor was accused of trying to “f***” Brexit in a series of embarrassing cabinet leaks. The prime minister downplayed the briefing, telling LBC that the “team is together and we’re getting on with the job.” But Heseltine believes the headlines.
“I don’t think the journalists make it up,” he says. “It only reflects their known views from the referendum campaign. With the exception of the prime minister, I don’t see that any one of them has changed their minds.”
The cabinet divisions are partly his design. When he was still employed by May, the Tory peer advised she appoint Brexiteers to the three cabinet posts in charge of severing ties with Europe. The result is Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Liam Fox leading the high offices of Brexit.
Heseltine says the trio are “the right people to prove the job can’t be done.” He explains: “It was the only political answer I could see — to let the Brexiteers prove that their policies work. Patently they don’t. There are no policies.
“They are just floundering along and I’m afraid, they must be allowed to continue to do that until the public opinion gets the message. It’s an impossible task, there is no upside to this negotiation. There are no good news stories to come out of this.”
There’s now a ‘window’ of opportunity to stop Brexit
The chasm between Leave and Remain is so wide, and the Brexit issues so complex, there are growing whispers in Whitehall that Brexit may never happen.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is one senior politician who has voiced this prospect, telling Business Insider last month that “it’s certainly a possibility” that Britain could remain a member of the EU.
Heseltine agrees, particularly amid talk of a transitional exit, which could preserve Britain’s single market membership for a period after Article 50 expires. He hedges his forecast somewhat, but here it is:
“A small window has opened up. The likely evolution of the next couple of years: Public opinion will become disenchanted and Parliament may not be prepared to support Brexit. These are very difficult predictions and I don’t give any degree of certainty to them, but I do detect that opinion is moving.
“People who were certain are now talking about a growing period of transition. A concluded agreement with a transitional arrangement would leave the thing for grabs in a general election campaign. [It would give Remainers] the opportunity to change the agenda… It would present the option to turn the transition into permanent.”
Continued economic stagnation and slow progress on immigration could be factors in dampening public support for Brexit, Heseltine says. He also says the mood could change on the back of a single negative story, such as an eye-watering Brexit bill (current reports put this at £36 billion) or a specific hit to jobs as a result of leaving the EU.
Heseltine: Corbyn can be PM
The former MP for Henley also suggests that Labour’s role will be pivotal. Leader Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong Eurosceptic and gave the EU a lukewarm seven out of ten in a TV appearance in the run-up to the referendum. His party’s position does not diverge significantly from the government’s desire to leave the single market and seize control of immigration. But Heseltine believes this could change in an instant.
“What odds are there that the Labour party will change its position [on Brexit]? There are powerful forces in the Labour party who are anti-Brexit. The young, to start with. The unions. Many of the big City leaders. Suppose public opinion changes — my money would be on the Labour Party changing,” the Baron says.
“Supposing there’s some significant event that can be associated with Brexit that costs jobs. How long will the Labour Party go on allowing Corbyn to dominate the debate? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but these are good questions.”
He adds: “If it was a Tory government in favour of Brexit as oppose to a Labour government against Brexit, there will be a significant number of people who switch sides.”
Heseltine says Corbyn is “capable of anything.” He learnt not to underestimate the Labour leader after the general election. The Tory peer can now even envisage a scenario where Corbyn picks up the keys to 10 Downing Street.
“Six months ago, I would have laughed if you had suggested that, so would everybody else. No longer. He’s ahead in the opinion polls,” he explains.
“I’m wholly opposed to Corbyn becoming prime minister. All I can say is the man who was written off as an electoral disaster, actually came through in a way that was much better than people thought.”
Theresa May ‘won’t fight the next election’
And what of his own leader’s prospects? May appears to have ridden out any immediate threat to her premiership, but she remains a weakened figure. Heseltine isn’t optimistic about her chances.
“She won’t fight the next election as the leader of the Conservative Party. But at the moment the warring tribes have an interest in keeping her in power because they can’t agree on a successor,” he says.
“I have no idea of who in the front rank of Conservative politics will come up with a credible policy for the national self-interest of this country. Like everyone, I wait to see.”
Interestingly, Heseltine thinks it could take a “leap of generations” to “stop divisiveness” over Brexit, but he won’t utter any names out loud. “There very rarely is an obvious candidate,” he says, but the leap of generations he describes would require a junior minister or backbencher to emerge from the shadows with the consensus of the party.
Justice Minister Dominic Raab and International Development Secretary Priti Patel are among the more inexperienced candidates to have been mooted. Scottish leader Ruth Davidson is also viewed as a potential future leader, particularly after spearheading the party to 13 seats north of the border in June.
Heseltine is damning about the prospects of a more obvious candidate: Boris Johnson. “We all like Boris, he makes us laugh,” he says. BI prods Heseltine again — is Johnson the right man to lead the party? “I’ve answered your question. I want to know what people think, not just whether they can make good jokes.”
His dim view of Boris should not come as surprise. He thinks the foreign secretary’s decision to support the Leave campaign, after heavily flirting with Remain, was one of the biggest factors in Britain voting out of the EU. In Heseltine’s words, Johnson is to blame for the “greatest constitutional crisis of modern times.”
Unlike Johnson and May, the Tory peer has not flip-flopped on the issue of Brexit. And he is in no mood to stop holding to account the architects of the decision — and those delivering on what he sees as the “legacy of the false promises.”