A Conservative prime minister under threat. Cabinet ministers resigning in protest. Michael Heseltine on the news bulletins. Here’s an extract from Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s. We pick up the story as Geoffrey Howe resigns in November 1990.
A resigning minister is entitled to make a statement to the House, traditionally heard in silence and without interruptions, and there was some, though not very feverish, anticipation about what Geoffrey Howe would say. But the Commons was in recess and silence descended for a fortnight, during which time two more by-elections were held in Bootle and in Bradford North; both were Labour seats, but the Conservative performance was again poor, particularly in the marginal constituency of Bradford North which saw a swing from Tory to Labour of 16 per cent and the Conservative candidate pushed into third place by the Liberal Democrats.
The depression deepened on Tory benches, with even the good and faithful servant Bernard Ingham reporting that an MP had told him ‘that for the first time his constituents were blaming Mrs Thatcher herself for the circumstances in which they found themselves.’ The Northern Ireland minister Richard Needham, in a conversation on his car phone, gave his opinion that ‘I wish the old cow would resign’, only to find that the call had been intercepted by a terrorist group and leaked to the press.
‘I don’t think she realizes what a jam she’s in,’ wrote Alan Clark, reaching for his customary stock of wartime metaphors. ‘It’s the Bunker syndrome. Everyone round you is clicking their heels. The saluting sentries have highly polished boots and beautifully creased uniforms. But out there at the Front it’s all disintegrating.’
There was much speculation over the possibility of a leadership challenge, though few were prepared to speak out publicly; one of those who did was Anthony Meyer, making clear that things had moved out of his league by now: ‘If Conservatives think, as they mostly do, that we cannot win with Margaret Thatcher, then they must stand up and be counted against her. With the right leader, and in my view that right leader is Michael Heseltine, the Tory Party can win a historic fourth term.’ Nearly five years after he walked out of the cabinet, it seemed as though Heseltine’s day of destiny was finally about to dawn.
Most importantly, those two weeks saw Howe become increasingly infuriated, both by Thatcher’s attitude to his resignation, which he considered ‘patronizing and self-righteous’, and by a speech she gave at the Guildhall in London to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, in which she had used a cricketing image to emphasize her continued self-belief while all around were doubting her: ‘I am still at the crease, though the bowling has been pretty hostile of late. And, in case anyone doubted it, I can assure you there will be no ducking the bouncers, no stonewalling, no playing for time. The bowling’s going to get hit all round the ground. That’s my style.’
It was, as journalist Alan Watkins pointed out, a messy metaphor – apart from anything else, ‘ducking was precisely what one did with bouncers’ – but the meaning was clear enough: not even Howe’s resignation was sufficient to prompt any change in direction. And so he worked quietly on his speech.
Howe was in a unique position within the party. He had stood as a candidate against Thatcher in the leadership election of 1975 and, though he had picked up just nineteen votes, he had proved remarkably resilient. He was the last surviving member of the original Thatcher cabinet from 1979 and, in the words of Chris Patten, he ‘was almost a permanent part of the British constitution’. He was popular with the parliamentary party, though there was no equivalent feeling amongst the electorate, where he was regarded as the man who brought the country the first Thatcherite recession and who had then proved to be, at best, an anonymous foreign secretary.
Even among Conservative supporters, he was not exactly popular, regularly trailing Norman Tebbit and Michael Heseltine as their choice for the succession. If he had an image, it was as one of the dullest senior politicians of recent times, ‘an unbelievably boring speaker,’ noted Teresa Gorman. Nicknamed Mogadon Man for his low-key delivery, he had once literally sent David Owen to sleep during a live television programme on which they were both appearing, and was best known as the target of one of Denis Healey’s better jokes – being criticized by Howe, Healey had said, was like being savaged by a dead sheep. That was intended, of course, as a putdown, even if the visual image it conjured up was not entirely reassuring – zombie sheep on the rampage – though it was not until his resignation statement that Howe lived up to such a billing. And even on the day of that speech, Alan Clark still felt that it couldn’t make any difference: ‘Who gives a toss for the old dormouse?’ he asked his diary, rhetorically.
But there was life in the old dormouse yet. With Nigel Lawson sitting supportively at his side, Howe candidly explained to the Commons why he felt it was impossible for him to continue to serve in Thatcher’s government. He ridiculed ‘the nightmare image’ she conjured up of ‘a continent that is positively teeming with ill-intentioned people, scheming, in her words, to extinguish democracy, to dissolve our national identities, to lead us through the back door into a federal Europe’. It was a tragedy for the country, he said, ‘that the prime minister’s perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation.’
He even picked up her cricketing imagery and somehow ended up still more confused than she had been: ‘It’s rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find the moment the first balls are bowled that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain,’ he declared, which made no sense at all. But again, one could see the point towards which he was fumbling, and in any event the really shocking fact was that a former chancellor and foreign secretary was prepared publicly to attack the prime minister who had appointed him, accusing her of undermining her senior colleagues.
And in perhaps the most powerful passage of his speech, he seemed to assault the patriotic foundations of her philosophy, arguing that both he and Lawson had spent years trying to persuade Thatcher not to let Britain ‘retreat into a ghetto of sentimentality about our past and so diminish our own control over our destiny in the future’. He followed that with positive references back to Harold Macmillan and Winston Churchill, clearly seeking to place Thatcher outside the Conservative mainstream, as though she were being excommunicated.
The bitterness revealed by such comments was, it was assumed, an explosion of the accumulated, pent-up frustrations of being patronized, bullied and ridiculed by Thatcher (they had shared ‘seven hundred meetings of cabinet or shadow cabinet over the last eighteen years,’ he pointed out). But there was too the anger felt by many in the political establishment, both in Britain and in Europe more widely, that Thatcher was reneging on the nation’s commitment to what was then still known as the European Economic Community, though it would soon be renamed the European Union.
The debate between those who feared, like Thatcher, that democracy and national independence were being sold out, and those who subscribed to the federalist dream of a fully integrated Europe, was to dominate the Conservative Party for the whole of the next decade, but in the immediate moment there was the raw political thrill of hearing such a senior figure launch a coup. ‘The conflict of loyalty, of loyalty to my right honourable friend the prime minister,’ he said in his peroration, ‘and of loyalty to what I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great.’ And he ended with a direct incitement to revolution: ‘The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.’