Brexit: why Michael Heseltine is sceptical on Tory-Labour talks
The Tory veteran remainer tells FT editor Lionel Barber that Brexit talks between the government and Labour opposition are likely to fail and with stalemate in parliament the only option is a second referendum which Remain has a chance to win (interview recorded Saturday April 6)
Filmed and produced by Steve Ager. Edited by Josh de la Mare.
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I'm here at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival with Lord Heseltine, former deputy prime minister and longtime pro-European and cabinet minister. Lord Heseltine, we don't know what is going to happen regarding Brexit. Can you see a path forward, particularly with the notion of these talks between the Conservatives and Labour?
Well, my instinct and long experience tells me, oppositions never bail out governments. And so, when I heard about these talks, I was a sceptic from the start. I thought they'd string them along. Everyone would play for the audience, not to be blamed. But actually, there'd be no agreement in the end. And as of tonight, that's where we are.
But there is this extraordinary subplot, where you have the chancellor of the xxchequer denying the existence of red lines, whilst the Labour people say the red lines are set in concrete. So what is the chancellor of the exchequer doing in becoming a public voice, asking for changes in government policy?
April the 12th is, though, the notional deadline for an agreement by the UK for agreement to this withdrawal accord with the EU. Otherwise, we crash out,
Yes. Well, there is that date. But already, the prime minister has asked to change the date. And at the present forecast, you cannot see how she can have a deal by April the 12th, and therefore she has to ask for a change or to crash out. But the crash out isn't an option, because the House of Commons is not going to let that happen.
Do you see indicative votes with the MPs looking at various options?
Well, that must be a possibility. But we've already done that once. Although they got very, very close to an option, they didn't get a majority for anything. Now, maybe that if we have another go on Wednesday, they will get to something.
With preferential options?
Well, with preferential choices, but for me, the one that is a very important, again, possibility now is that they have a second referendum. They put it back to the people. And I think that... I mean, just...
You are a supporter of that, and you have been for some time.
I have been from... I wrote an article in the Mail on Sunday immediately after the referendum, said that the fightback starts here, and we have to work for a second referendum. And I still believe that. But I think that, of course, I am in favour of British influence in Europe. So that let me not muck about that argument.
But to me, if you look at the divisions in the Commons, which very interestingly, democratically reflect exactly the position in the country by family, by region, by age, whatever that are these wide-ranging debates, which end up with no agreement. And so the idea that a referendum, narrowly won three years ago, should be set in concrete without the people having a chance to look at the reality of the deal, not the lies that were told, the reality of the deal, and either say yes or no, I find that extraordinary.
Do you honestly believe that a Remain campaign could actually pull it off in a second vote?
The victory, by a narrow margin in 2016, was much influenced, in my view, by the thought that there were easy pickings, like £350m a week for the health service. It's actually turned out to be a bill of £39bn, every penny of which is going to be borrowed by this generation to be paid back by a subsequent generation. No one told them that. We were going to have a lot of easy trade deals. We've hardly got any trade deals.
So there was a deception. And the deception was, I think, important because I believed it was run on the basis of the crash of 2008, which was a mega-economic crisis for the world economy. We lived in a sort of fool's paradise, which crashed. We've had our living standards frozen for 10 years. And if you do that, regardless of Brexit, if you freeze people's living standards, they want change.
Can the Remain campaign win it a second time round?
Well, there's no easy answer, but we have to be given the chance. And I think we have one very important thing on our side, and it's worth 800 votes every year in every constituency. And it's called the age profile. The elderly are 70/30 in favour of leaving Europe in 2016.
The young, exactly the opposite: 30/70 in favour of being in the European Union. And of course, there is a natural erosion. Now, that's worth 800 votes in every constituency every year. In other words, 2,400 votes in every constituency since the referendum. That is the joker in the pack.