Brexit rebel Lord Heseltine sacked from government role

Media caption,
Lord Heseltine tells Radio 4's Today he has never met Theresa May

Former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine has been sacked as a government adviser after rebelling over Brexit in the House of Lords.

Lord Heseltine backed the demand for a parliamentary vote on the final deal to be written into Brexit legislation.

He learned hours later on Tuesday that he had been fired from five government advisory roles he had held.

He said he accepted Number 10's right to sack him but "sometimes there are issues which transcend party politics".

Asked what he thought his sacking said about the current government, he told BBC Radio 4's Today: "I have never met Theresa May so I can't make a judgement. She's doing very well in the polls... the public approve of what she's doing."

Lord Heseltine, who campaigned to remain in the EU, told the Lords that the UK was facing "the most momentous peacetime decision of our time".

The peer said he was having dinner with his wife when he got a call from the chief whip, and went to the Lords to be told he was being sacked.

Lord Heseltine told the BBC the prime minister was "exercising her perfectly legitimate right to get rid of opposition in any way she finds appropriate".

"Whether it's a wise thing to do is a matter for her not for me," he said.

"I have been hugely proud of the work I have done for David Cameron and now for this prime minister, and if they don't want me to go on they must sack me."

He said it was a "great disappointment" for him as "for six years I have had the incredible privilege of working inside the Whitehall machine with civil servants helping ministers to make decisions".

Media caption,
Lord Forsyth says the government has committed to give Parliament a vote on a Brexit deal.

Lord Heseltine continued: "I did write a newspaper article the other day setting out exactly what I intended to do so I think they could have told me this would be the price, but let me make it quite clear; I would still have voted as I did tonight.

"Sometimes in politics there are issues which transcend party politics; in the end you have to be your own person. I believe our interests are intertwined with Europe. I am not prepared to change.

"Every Conservative prime minister I worked for has told me, including this prime minister before the referendum, that we were essentially seeking British self-interest in Europe.

"It's not perfect but it's much better than anything that happened before the Second World War."

The 83-year-old - who dramatically walked out of Mrs Thatcher's cabinet during a row over Westland helicopters in 1986 - served as a minister in both her and John Major's Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s.

Who is Lord Heseltine?

Image source, Getty Images

Nicknamed "Tarzan" because of his combative manner and long blond hair, renowned by the press as a Conservative "big beast", Michael Heseltine has been a major figure on the UK political scene for decades.

Having made a fortune in publishing, he was an MP from 1966 to 2001.

After Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, the ambitious and politically centrist Heseltine became environment secretary and then defence secretary.

But he and his boss had a huge fall-out in 1986, over a complex dispute involving the future of Westland helicopters. He quit and walked out in the middle of a cabinet meeting.

Heseltine remained on the backbenches until, in 1990, with Thatcher apparently losing popularity among the public and her own party, he launched a leadership bid. He didn't win but inflicted enough of a blow on the PM's prestige for her to resign.

John Major won the next contest, but Heseltine, an ardent Europhile, returned to the cabinet, rising to deputy prime minister in the last two years of Major's premiership, a period beset with Conservative disputes over the UK's relationship with the EU.

Heseltine retired as an MP and entered the Lords, where he continued occasionally to speak out on issues dear to his heart - including putting the Remain case during the EU referendum campaign - and also returned to publishing.

Lord Heseltine was brought in by former Prime Minister David Cameron to advise the government on a range of projects, including schemes in east London and Swansea.

He told Today that his roles were taking up three to four days a week.

A Downing Street spokesman said he understood Mrs May had in fact met Lord Heseltine, although he did not confirm whether this was before or after she became prime minister.

In a statement, the government said it had "a clearly stated and consistent position" that the Brexit bill should be passed without amendment.

The chief whip in the Lords asked Lord Heseltine to stand down because he voted against the government's official position, it said, adding: "The government would like to warmly thank Lord Heseltine for his service."

Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper said it was "quite reasonable" to sack Lord Heseltine for opposing government policy.

Lord Heseltine's recent government roles

  • Economic adviser to Number 10
  • Adviser to the secretary of state for communities and local growth
  • Adviser on plans on Swansea's city deal
  • National infrastructure commissioner
  • Chairman of Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel
  • Chairman of Tees Valley Inward Investment Initiative

Brexit Secretary David Davis has said some in the Lords are seeking to "frustrate" Brexit but it was the government's intention to ensure that did not happen.

When the bill returns to the Commons next week ministers will have some persuading to do to reverse the Lords changes, but Theresa May remains on course to trigger Article 50 and begin Brexit negotiations before the end of this month.

Peers voted by 366 votes to 268 in favour of an amendment to the bill to have a "meaningful" parliamentary vote on the final terms of the Brexit deal.

It was the second defeat for the bill in the Lords - the previous one was on the issue of guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens.

After a three-hour debate on Tuesday, the turnout for the vote was the largest in the Lords since 1831, according to Parliament's website.

As well as Lord Heseltine, 12 other Tory peers defied the government to vote in favour of the amendment, including former ministers Lord Deben and Viscount Hailsham.

Mrs May has said she wants to trigger Article 50 by the end of March but the Commons is unlikely to have an opportunity to consider the changes made by the Lords until the middle of next week because four days have been set aside for debate on the Budget.