It was self-abnegating of Michael Heseltine, who at 83 is no young cub, to work for the Government. He could have been swanning about in his beloved Oxfordshire arboretum rather than working as a unpaid factotum for politicians over half his age. But he has deeply-held views about business and localism, many of which are right, and wanted to carry on contributing to public life.
And so he was doing, like him or loathe him. In writing his No Stone Unturned report for David Cameron, he simultaneously wrote the book for the Coalition’s devolution programme in England – and therefore for George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project, which Theresa May is now continuing. He worked on a plan for regenerating East London for Cameron, and was working on one to do the same for Swansea under May.
Under the former, he was arguably the most powerful politician outside Cabinet in Britain, having charge of the £2 billion Regional Growth Fund. He is less close to Sajid Javid than to Greg Clark, but toiled away for both, travelling England with the former to clinch City Deals – where he played hard cop with to the latter’s soft cop with recalcitrant local authority leaders – and did so very effectively, or so this site was told.
His position as an adviser was thus more than decorative and he will be a loss. But the Prime Minister clearly felt that she could not have him both exercising a senior role within it while also supporting a move whose logic is to bring it down, or try to (which is the sum of the pathetic Lords amendment to the Article 50 Bill which he backed yesterday).
There is an echo of Westland. That time round, he got ahead of Margaret Thatcher by announcing his resignation before the Government machine could grind into action. And this time, he duly got ahead of May, too, popping up for interviews yesterday evening before Downing Street could get its line out. But there is a difference. Thatcher didn’t dare sack him. May now has.
The one-time Lion King has lost most of his teeth, of course, and the Prime Minister, unlike her predecessor, runs few risks by putting him out to grass. Advisers are not Ministers, and so Heseltine’s defenestration was not formally necessary. But May clearly felt that a signal must be sent pour encourager les autres. As someone or other once put it, there is no alternative.