Michael Heseltine will be sitting with a cup of coffee at his country pile, thinking about when to take a tour of his fabulous gardens, whilst flicking through the Sunday papers, a ritual through the many decades of his business and political career. It is likely to please him that he is in them, still making waves at an age many have long given up, though the content will displease him, because it is pretty clear that those old sources close to the current Cabinet have been briefing against Hezza’s growth plan.
Not least because of his own considerable experience, he is an astute reader of anonymous briefings and by the time he is onto his second coffee, he will have concluded that George Osborne, or at the very least some of the young whipper snappers around him, is at it.
Heseltine was asked by the government to produce a plan for growth. Anyone who knows anything about his views and his career could have made a reasonable guess as to what he might recommend – cuts to red tape and some business taxes (so far so good for Osborne) but he also wants government departments, quangos and councils to do more to stimulate economic growth. He will argue for reforms in tax credits to encourage businesses to spend more money on R&D as well as measures to boost the skills of British workers; a dramatic boost to the Regional Growth Fund; expanding the role and funding on offer to Local Enterprise Partnerships; and scrapping dozens of district councils to create a simple structure of local goverment.
According to some reports, again believable given Hezza’s history, he wanted to recommend the reinstatement of Regional Development Agencies, a sensible move but one which, given it was an idea of the last Labour government, will be seen as a non-starter in Downing Street, 10 and 11.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, a paper Lord H reads particularly closely when looking for signs of ministerial briefing, ‘ministers are also adamant that the peer’s hopes of shaking up local government may also be ignored. It is thought the peer will recommend replacing county and district councils with more tightly-focused “unitary authorities”. One source close to the Cabinet said: ‘He can recommend this if he likes. It won’t happen’. Oooh, rough stuff.
Unsurprisingly, he wants more mayors and he wants to send more Whitehall civil servants out into the provinces to foster economic growth. But the scale and scope of his ideas has led to more negative briefing, with one ‘Whitehall source’ saying the government became worried the whole operation would become ‘a soapbox for Lord Heseltine to espouse his world view.’
But the real reason for the opposition may be found in another anonymous briefing over in the Sunday Times, where Hezza will read that his proposals have been met ‘with dismay’ by Osborne and Co ‘because they appear to echo the previous government’s policy.’
There you have it. Cameron and Osborne wanted Hezza’s input because he is a big beast, with lots of experience, and a good mind. Oh, and it gave them a clutch of good headlines at the time, showing them to be inclusive of the old guard and the left of the Party. But now that he has come to the obvious conclusion that a growth plan will require the kind of intervention Labour believe in and Cameron-Osborne don’t, including help for regions which has been slashed as part of the Plan A austerity programme, then they have responded by creating a different clutch of headlines.
I suspect Hezza will not take it lying down. But worse, does it not show once more than both the PM and the Chancellor are more driven by short term politics than the long term economic needs of the country?