Maybe not the potato

Michael Heseltine does not look like a potato. In fact, he is curiously unlike Peter Dutton in a number of ways.

Heseltine came from an educated background and was an effective minister with broadly progressive views. He did belong to a group called “One Nation”, but that was mostly coincidence.

But like Dutton, Heseltine launched a leadership challenge that mortally wounded a prime minister. Also, as it happens, a prime minister who was perceived as arrogant, believed in climate change and was out of step with the traditions of their party (and trailed badly in the opinion polls).

Heseltine, however, did not go on to take the leadership. Margaret Thatcher – for yes, it was she, and the year was 1990 – had beaten him in the first ballot, but judged that she was too badly damaged to be sure of prevailing in the second. Instead, she withdrew and backed her chancellor of the exchequer, John Major.

Major then beat Heseltine comfortably in the second ballot, and went on to win the general election of 1992. Heseltine rejoined the cabinet and seemed to bear no particular ill-will to Major; he later served as his deputy prime minister.

Nor is that the only precedent. In June 2013, Simon Crean defeated a challenge from Kim Beazley for the Labor Party leadership, but attacks on him continued. At the end of the year he stood down, but backed shadow treasurer Mark Latham as his replacement, and Latham narrowly defeated Beazley in a caucus ballot.

So while yesterday’s events seem to have made Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership unsustainable, it does not follow that Dutton will be the beneficiary. If he is willing to sacrifice himself, Turnbull could probably ensure the election of a compromise candidate – Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison are the obvious possibilities.

Whether such a candidate could repeat Major’s feat of winning the government another term is a different question, but stranger things have happened.


6 thoughts on “Maybe not the potato

  1. I squirm a bit to say it but there is really no one in the LNP of the calibre of Heseltine. He was the opposite of the do-nothing little-Englander Thatcherites and he was one of the few Tories to oppose her without being clobbered by her handbag (ie. her wrath and habitual putdowns around the cabinet table, which were supposedly legendary; he wasn’t cowed). He would have been a better PM than John Major (who was Thatcher’s poodle and why she supported him to defeat Heseltine).

    The main thing for which I remember him, other than his opposition to Thatcher, was his pivotal role in getting HS1 built (though curiously his Wiki biog doesn’t mention it). Thatcher had made sure that the 1987 Channel Tunnel Act specifically made it illegal for government funding! (Almost certainly inspiration for Abbott’s stupendously stupid transport policy of not a dollar for rail.) By the mid-90s I was regularly travelling on Eurostar between Oxford and Paris, and the change in the two legs–Paris-Calais at 300km/h versus Dover to Waterloo at 160km/h–was stark and embarassing; and it persisted for 12 long years (HS1 via Stratford and into the rejuvenated St Pancras opened in 2007). Heseltine was convinced of the long eastern route (which required >20km tunnel) because it supported urban redevelopment in east London (Stratford, and note that this later became a factor in being awarded the Olympics even though it didn’t stop there, and still doesn’t though the Eurostar station was built: one day soonish; London CrossRail is terminating there) and in the St Pancras/Kings Cross/Regents Canal area (and made sense in context of HS2 into KingsX; someday, notwithstanding Brexit you should be able to catch a HSR in the north of England/Scotland and ride it all the way to Paris or the south of France). At first they tried a PPP and in fact a Land Value Capture scheme (area around the London stations) but it had an ignominious demise, but was rescued by government (I guess it was Labor by then but Heseltine’s influence was pivotal).

    This reminds me of another aspirant UK PM (another who was much talked of as a future PM): Michael Portillo who was a Thatcherite dry, but he lost his seat! I don’t know if you watch his tv series on Railways but there is an amusing story in Nicholas Faith’s The Right Line (the history of building HS1):

    The fundamental neglect of the need for a properly-financed rail system meant that the fast link to the Channel was on the radar at either Ten Downing Street or the Treasury only two or three times during the entire twenty year process. It was simply assumed that BR would put the London section in a tunnel to Waterloo. This attitude was summed up in May 1990 by Harriet Harman, the Labour MP for Peckham, one of the parts of London most affected. On the 19th she noted how Michael Portillo, when Minister of State for Transport had sat through a previous debate on the subject ‘with a studied, neutral expression on his face. He listened to one side; he listened to the other; then he got up and said, “of course, it’s nothing to do with me”.

    Ironic that the very first thing I saw of Portillo in the first ep of his series on Continental Railways was him at the impressively restored St Pancras station getting on a Eurostar to Paris, the very thing which Thatcher and her acolytes had delayed for at least 12 years after Eurotunnel first opened.

    Alas, one thing we have inherited from the lamentable UK conservatives is the allergy to nation-building infrastructure. The Howard 12 years were a total desert (except for the rail to Darwin). Leave it to the “free market” which of course just delivers expensive stuff like road tunnels with massive tolls for 50 years.


    1. Thanks Michael – it’s nice to have readers who at least remember Heseltine. I’m a rail fan myself, and I’ve tried a couple of times to watch Portillo’s show, but I just can’t sit thru his accent.


      1. Ha, yes, know what you mean about Portillo’s patrician accent and attitude. Labor and the satirical shows called him Senor Porteee-oh. And it is curious how a first generation Brit born to Spanish father (who was some kind of refugee from Franco as many were, like mayor of Paris *Anne Hidalgo) turns into a fervent little-Englander. I don’t quite understand how he resolves his obvious admiration for much of Europe with his hardline Thatcherite politics; unless it was mostly just bluster and ambition. I’ve watched a lot of his Railway series and without knowing his history you’d mistake him for a progressive europhile! Of course in the show he takes great care to not appear disdainful of the lower classes he has to deal with, with only middling success.
        I think the comparison between him and Hesletine, just on HS1 and on the EU is revealing: for all his Tory sensibilities Heseltine acted in the national interest (which I would have agreed with even though I would never have voted for him or any Tory, but then I never trusted Blair and in my last election in UK, 1997, in Oxford I voted for SDP which in their system meant my vote was wasted).

        *Note: this confirms (as a hundred other things) for me that a private education system is incompatible with true democracy. It is that which almost certainly is what turned little Portillo into a little-Englander Tory compared to Anne Hidalgo (or Manuel Valls, former PM, another whose family were refugees from Franco) who became a dedicated social-democrat (ie. French socialist). I am dismayed when I see that so many are turning on Simon Birmingham because of his policy on catholic private schools who will fight viciously to retain their ridiculous privilege.


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