What Geoffrey Howe’s career revealed about power—and Thatcherism

What Geoffrey Howe’s career revealed about power—and Thatcherism


A reminder that the Iron Lady was strongest when she compromised

NOTHING in Geoffrey Howe’s ministerial career became him like leaving it. Browbeaten and humiliated one too many times by Margaret Thatcher, he stepped down as deputy prime minister and—as a colleague later put it—“wielded the dagger of Brutus” by lambasting her in the House of Commons. Criticising her by-then starkly Eurosceptic stance for undermining British negotiations over the Exchange Rate Mechanism, he argued: “It’s rather like sending our opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find that before the first ball is bowled, their bats have been broken by the team captain.” “The time has come,” he concluded “for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.” They did: nine days later, on November 22nd 1990, she was gone.

Mr Howe, who died yesterday at 88, later attributed the acrimony of his departure to the professional proximity that he and Thatcher had once enjoyed: “the closer the original bonding, the longer the life of the partnership, the more dramatic the final rupture,” he wrote of his and others’ exasperation. Indeed, the break-down of the relationship between this one-time barrister and MP for East Surrey and his prime minister gives the lie to one of the most enduring claims about her premiership: that she dominated British politics merely through her intransigence.

The reality, smothered by myths propagated both by Thatcher’s supporters and by her left-wing opponents, is that the prime minister was more stinting than she appeared. A new, definitive biography by Charles Moore, the second volume of which was published this week, serves as a reminder of that. She propped up British Leyland, a failing carmaker. She “won” the coal miners’ strike by tacking carefully, not by refusing to budge. While publicly steadfast on Irish republicanism she authorised back-channel dealings with the IRA. She cut Britain’s contributions to Brussels by giving ground in other areas.

That Mr Howe played such an important role in her premiership—as chancellor at the time of her “you turn if you want to” speech and foreign secretary at that of the rebate negotiations—is a corollary of this sometimes-softer reality. Mr Howe may have presided over her monetarist revolution in the early 1980s but, as Mr Moore puts it, he did so “in a low-key way which helped convince voters that it was not a messianic project, but common sense.” Much of what he did was less a clean break with the pre-1979 order than an intensification of policies first introduced by Labour to bear down on the money supply. And shortly after her refusal to “turn” in 1981, she and Mr Howe did (in effect) just that by cutting interest rates.

With his heavy jowls and hooded eyelids, Mr Howe cut an irenic, gentle, even slightly unfortunate figure. Denis Healey, a former Labour chancellor who died last week, famously compared his attack on the 1978 budget to being “savaged by a dead sheep” (it was later rumoured that Mrs Howe had penned the sharpest barbs in his 1990 resignation speech). Spotting Mr Howe wearing a dinner jacket Alan Clark, a mischievous Tory MP and diarist, once asked him for three bucks fizzes and informed Thatcher: “The head waiter wants to know what you’d like to drink.” She joined in with the mockery; increasingly so as his spell as foreign secretary from 1983 wore on. Of a seminar at Chequers on the Soviet Union, Mr Moore writes: “One person whose view was not sought was poor Geoffrey Howe. When he made as if to speak, Mrs Thatcher forestalled him: ‘Don’t worry, Geoffrey. We know exactly what you’re going to say.’” She divided Tories into “wets” (wimpy moderates) and “dries” (true believers) and seems, ultimately, to have thought of him as a damp—“one of us”, but less so than the likes of Keith Joseph, Norman Tebbit or Nigel Lawson, his successor as chancellor.

Their relationship deteriorated as her unwillingness to compromise for compromise’s sake morphed into something more brittle: a refusal to compromise at all. Mr Howe bridled at her reluctance to ostracise Apartheid-era South Africa and, in particular, at her growing hostility to the European project. She humiliated him by demoting him to leader of the House of Commons in 1989 and appalled him with an undiplomatic attack on the integrationist ambitions of Jacques Delors, then the European Commission president, on October 30th 1990 (“no, no, no!” she bellowed in the Commons chamber). In his autobiography John Major describes the final cabinet meeting before Mr Howe’s resignation: “When he looked down at the long cabinet table, she looked up at it. When she put her head down to read her notes, he looked straight up. The body language said it all. This treatment of a senior colleague was embarrassing for the whole cabinet.”

And so came the dramatic “final rupture”, as he put it, and one of the most unexpectedly vituperative Westminster speeches in living memory. Such was the respect that he commanded from his fellow MPs and ministers that Mr Howe’s comments unquestionably catalysed Thatcher’s fall. It had been her strategic flexibility, embodied by his calm manner, that had kept her in 10 Downing Street for 11 years and her inflexibility, embodied by his alienation and departure, that brought her down. He thus deserves his place in history: as a lynchpin of Thatcherism’s rise and fall. But his career also has a direct bearing on Britain’s political present. Looking on, as a staffer in the Conservative Research Department, throughout the Iron Lady’s fall was David Cameron. Though a Thatcherite, he was horrified by her belittlement of her foreign secretary and was left with the conviction that premiers who try to go “on and on” in office eventually lose their marbles. Thus it is that the current prime minister, for all his foibles, rarely tries to micromanage his ministers and has pledged to leave office before the next election. Describing Mr Howe yesterday as “a quiet hero” of his, Mr Cameron meant it.

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