Bernard Ingham: The inside story of Thatcher’s downfall

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Twenty-five years ago this month, the Prime Minister judged by many to be Britain’s greatest post-war leader was dramatically ousted by her own party. In an exclusive series, Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham will tell the inside story of her downfall.

EXACTLY 25 years ago yesterday I rang Margaret Thatcher at Chequers to tell her that Michael Heseltine was on manoeuvres. He had just written an open letter to his constituency chairman ostensibly calling on the Government to chart a new course on Europe but in practice launching a bid to unseat the Prime Minister.

I reported that, immediately following Sir Geoffrey Howe’s bitter resignation as deputy Prime Minister, Heseltine had “lit the blue touch paper and retired a safe distance – to wit, the Middle East – to see what happened”.

The die was being cast that would end Thatcher’s career, kibosh Heseltine’s, earn Howe the title of Brutus and propel me into a busy, educational, highly productive and still enjoyable retirement.

The gathering storm had taken its time to gather. It was not primarily propelled by the Tories’ wonderful ability to divide over Europe. Indeed, here Europe was something of a cosmetic on the hard face of personal ambition.

Its malignant surface had broken four years earlier when Heseltine’s frustrated ambition caused him to have a brainstorm about forcibly enfolding the £30m helicopter company, Westland, in a non-existent European consortium. Eventually the company found its own salvation in the US firm Sikorsky.

Heseltine resigned to fume like Mount Etna on the backbenches. He could be guaranteed to blow when he thought he had a chance of ousting Thatcher.

Then came that infamous morning of June 25, 1989. The two broadest beams in the Cabinet – Howe and Lawson – marched up the stairs to the Prime Minister’s study to threaten to resign if she did not agree at the Madrid summit, for which she was about leave, to set a date for joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

The atmosphere on the plane to Spain was poisonous. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were not on speaking terms. So enraged was she that the No 10 party did not attend the UK ambassador’s dinner. Nor did she set a date, though she was a bit more positive than “when the time is ripe”.

Four months later Lawson did resign. It was, he said, either him or Sir Alan Walters, her economic adviser. It had to be him. After all, the clever dick had temporarily blown the economic recovery by shadowing the Deutsche Mark.

Believe it or not, in these long years of 0.5 per cent interest rates, they had been hoisted to 14 per cent in May 1989 to squeeze out inflation.

Lawson ran away from his failure, using Walters as cover. And to think his ambition – never to be Prime Minister – was to run the economy without let or hindrance. Thatcher had to tell him she was still the First Lord of the Treasury. She was mortified that her protege had temporarily blown a recovery so hard won over seven years from 1979.

Not surprisingly, with high interest rates exacerbating the problem of reforming the rating system through the poll tax, Tory MPs began to fear for their futures. Politicians will take almost anything from their leaders provided they think their seats are safe. They began to puff out their cheeks in shows of concern.

Bang on cue came mischief in the form of a stalking donkey – the drippingly wet, nay waterlogged, Sir Anthony Meyer – to challenge her for the leadership in December 1989.

He was easily seen off by 314 votes to 33, but with 27 abstentions. Those of us who were there at the time read too little into his performance.

Still, we kept asking each other in 1990 whether there would be another leadership challenge in the autumn. Right up to October the collective judgment was that she would probably not be troubled.

And then came the EU summit in Rome at the end of October. It was a classic example of Italian treachery combined with all round EU bad faith. Giulio Andreotti, the somewhat shady Italian Prime Minister, tried to bounce Thatcher into a development of European monetary union. The lady was not for bouncing, though she pulsated with furious contempt.

It all came out when she reported on the fiasco to the House of Commons. “No, no, no”, she said of Jacques Delors’ concept of a federal Europe with the European Parliament its House of Representatives, the Council of Ministers its Senate and the Commission its executive.

It was all too much for the arch-Europhile Howe. He resigned as deputy Prime Minister, harbouring all kinds of resentments about his treatment by Thatcher, his failure to become Prime Minister and her stand on European policy.

No 10 battened down the hatches.