In Brief

Heseltine loses Today prog's 'back of envelope' challenge

Senior Tory pooh-poohs presenter Evan Davis's remark – but what's this?

Michael Heseltine, one of the more colourful members of the Conservative government in the Thatcher era, has been caught out by Radio 4's Today programme. 

On Monday morning, while advocating that foreign students should be left out of the immigration statistics (on the grounds that they are not really the sort of immigrants we're talking about when we're having a good old national row about the numbers), he pooh–poohed presenter Evan Davis's suggestion that the immigration target might well have originated as a "back-of-an-envelope" calculation.

With a snort of disapproval, Heseltine told Davis that he could not in all his long years in government remember policy ever being written on the back of an envelope.

Davis let it go. But this morning the veteran political host and columnist Sue Cameron (no relation to the PM) popped up with just the evidence the Today programme needed.

Turn to page 14 of Heseltine's memoir Where There's a Will, she said, and all is revealed.

Heseltine is recalling his appointment by Margaret Thatcher as Environment Secretary after she had led the party to victory in the 1979 general election. 

He had already been shadow environment secretary in opposition, so he knew something of what the job called for and how he intended to tackle it.

So Hezza invited his new permanent undersecretary, Sir John Garlick, to lunch.

Sir John, writes Hezza, came "unarmed". But, wait for it… "I was not unarmed: I came with the outline of my programme on the back of an envelope."

Not only did Heseltine use an envelope to draw up his list of requirements but, by his own admission, it was a highly successful tool.

"I confess to some satisfaction that, as I took over one of the most exciting government departments, I was able to set out so clearly what I wanted to do and that so much of it was done.

"The essential first lesson of a newly appoint secretary of state, as I had learnt [he had served at Transport and Industry in an earlier Ted Heath government], was to know what one wanted and how to get it. 

"The other lesson well learnt was of the constantly moving private secretaries, so the first requirement on my envelope was that I would interview the brightest candidates in the appropriate grade and that once I had chosen a private secretary he would stay with me to the day I left the department."

(For readers who might be confusing their private secretaries with their permanent undersecretaries, think back to a favourite episode of Yes Minister. Nigel Hawthorne played the permanent undersecretary - Sir Humphrey - and Derek Fowlds played the private secretary - Bernard).

The Today programme owes a debt of gratitude to the late Sir John Garlick who, having retired from the Civil Service, wrote to Heseltine when Thatcher moved him from Environment and made him Defence Secretary in 1983. "He [Garlick] wished me well," wrote Heseltine, "and said that perhaps now I might like to have back the envelope, which he enclosed."

And there on Page 15 of Where There's a Will – an unlikely Sunday Times bestseller back in 1987 – the envelope is reproduced.

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