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Major launches a class war as Tory grandees enjoy their Jurassic Park moment

Major launches a class war as Tory grandees enjoy their Jurassic Park moment

🕔12.Nov 2013

It’s proving to be quite an Indian summer for the Tory grandees Michael Heseltine and John Major.

Heseltine, who famously predicted he would become prime minister but never did, and Major, who hardly dared dream of getting to Number Ten but managed against all the odds to do so, have been giving the Conservative Party the benefit of their wisdom.

Think of Last of the Summer Wine without the jokes, or the film Jurassic Park where advances in science enable dinosaurs to be brought back to life with unpredictable results.

In the case of Lord Heseltine, it is at least a matter of being on-message……more or less.

Asked by the prime minister to devise ways of narrowing the north-south divide and bringing economic growth to the regions, Heseltine lived up to his image as an arch interventionist by demanding a massive transfer of budgets and powers from Whitehall to local enterprise partnerships.

The jury is still out on the extent to which Heseltine’s ‘single pot’ of growth money will ever be realised amid worries that the coalition government, and just as importantly Labour, are not convinced about the viability of LEPs in their present form.

Having been given a roving brief to comment on regeneration, it should not come as much of a surprise to learn that Lord Heseltine plans to steam into the HS2 debate, naturally enough firmly on the side of high speed rail.

In a speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute he will urge the British to “have faith” in HS2, call for the project to be accelerated and say the private sector should bear more of the cost.

He will warn that future generations will judge those in power today harshly if the north-south rail line is not delivered.

Giving the example of his own experience as Environment Secretary under Lady Thatcher in the 1980s, Lord Heseltine will admit he wasn’t certain at the time whether the regeneration of former docks in east London would be successful but he “believed in” the project and proceeded with it.

“If we hadn’t built Canary Wharf, how many of the jobs there would be in Frankfurt instead.”

Addressing concerns about the HS2 cost-benefit analysis, he is expected to say: “Let me leave the ladies and gentlemen of the slide rules. They know no more and no less than you and me.

“All over the world governments are making decisions about a future which they cannot predict but in which they believe.”

It is difficult to judge just how useful Lord Heseltine’s contribution will be to HS2 supporters, since his comments are bound to remind critics that a certain amount of crossing fingers behind backs and the plugging of fingers in ears is necessary when considering the business case for the £50 billion project.

Sir John Major’s intervention is potentially far more troublesome for David Cameron, serving as it does to remind us that the Tory party leadership is generally representative of the leading public schools and Oxbridge. Sir John has aimed a grubby hobnail boot squarely in the pants of the prime minister who would dearly love voters to forget about his days at Eton and subsequent membership of Oxford’s hard-drinking Bullingdon Club.

After an impressive vow of silence since he ceased to be prime minister in 1997, Sir John has succeeded in stirring up a winter of discontent for Conservatives. In October he condemned high power bills and called for a windfall tax on energy companies, and warned about the creeping effect of “lace curtain poverty” among the middle classes.

He followed that with an onslaught against the dominance of private school-educated elite at the top of public life in Britain today which he believes to be “truly shocking”.

Sir John was “appalled” that “every single sphere of British influence” was dominated by men and women who had been privately educated or were from the “affluent middle class”.

It’s the sort of thing you might expect the leader of the Labour Party to say, although Ed Miliband’s Oxbridge credentials would probably place him in Sir John’s “higher echelons” of the affluent middle class.

Who can say why Sir John has chosen this moment to break his silence in such an incendiary fashion? One thing is certain, though. His comments will be unhelpful to Mr Cameron and his cabinet, half of whom went to private schools and have the benefit of hefty family fortunes.

Lord Heseltine, incidentally, regarded now as landed gentry with his country mansion and arboretum, was once on the receiving end of a nasty attack from the late Alan Clark, an ardent Thatcherite, who sneered that Heseltine was the “sort of person who has to buy his own furniture”.

Sir John’s speech may light a slow burning fuse, although it wasn’t quite on a par with Theresa May’s announcement in 2002 that Conservatives were regarded by many as “the nasty party”. Mrs May, then party chairman, was referring to far wider concerns about the ‘Tory brand’, with the party struggling to overcome an image of ignoring the poor, being against minorities and anti-gay.

Mr Cameron has tackled the anti-gay issue head on with legislation for same sex marriages, much to the despair of some Conservatives. But there’s not a lot he can do to offset a perception that the Tories are a party full of toffs, unless he sacks himself and his cabinet as well as kicking out a fair number of Conservative MPs.

The best he can wish for is that this won’t become an issue. He must hope that the class card can be despatched to the bottom of the pack. Sir John’s attack will have resonance not just at Westminster but also among the general public who hardly need any reminding about upper-middle class domination of government. It is there for all to see.

Cover Image: via Political Scrapbook

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