Richard Ingrams

The great sulker

Vain, rude, penny-pinching — and apparently not even musical — the ‘Grocer’ was more peculiar than most, says Richard Ingrams

Ted ‘Grocer’ Heath, as he will always be for me, was chosen by his fellow MPs to be their leader in 1965 as the Tory answer to Harold Wilson. After two Old Etonian patricians, Macmillan and Douglas-Home, the Grocer was a grammar-school boy, a meritocrat who would spearhead a new-look, classless Conservative party.

He was a clever, hard-working man, totally devoted to his political career. Unfortunately, with his wooden stance and curious ‘neow-neow’ voice, he lacked charisma, a failing he would never have admitted, as Michael Gove did recently. I remember Heath presenting the awards at the annual What the Papers Say lunch in 1968 and you could see journalists furtively looking at their watches after only a few minutes of his speech. This man will never be prime minister was my firm conviction.

Yet two years later, proving once again that you cannot predict political outcomes, Heath won the general election to the surprise of everyone apart from himself. And almost immediately, as the many witnesses contributing to this interesting new book attest, things started to go wrong. ‘Something happened to Ted Heath once he became Prime Minister,’ David Howell recalls: ‘The old sparkle vanished.’ Ian Macleod, the star member of his team, died suddenly. Unemployment and prices rose, the trade unions grew increasingly militant and before long we had the three-day week and an ill-timed election which Heath lost. It came as something of a shock when he then lost a leadership contest to Margaret Thatcher the following year.

‘Reserved’, ‘buttoned-up’ and similar expressions recur in the reminiscences of Heath’s circle which Michael McManus has assembled. ‘Rude’ is another word which crops up regularly, though usually introduced with a note of regret and the urge to absolve Heath of being deliberately insulting.

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