IT is a resignation which remains without parallel in contemporary British politics; Sir Geoffrey Howe, so long the quiet statesman, finally snapping and walking out of Downing Street and precipitating a chain of events that would culminate – three tempestuous weeks later – with Margaret Thatcher’s tearful downfall.
Even though tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of Sir Geoffrey ending his Cabinet career – he was a transformative Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming integral, as Foreign Secretary, to the ending of the Cold War – the momentous significance remains profound. Unlike most resignations which soon fade into obscurity, this one brought down the very government headed by the country’s most formidable leader since the Second World War.
It began on November 1, 1990, when Neil Kinnock – the then Labour leader – challenged Mrs Thatcher at PMQs to endorse her then much maligned Deputy Prime Minister who had given a lengthy television interview to Brian Walden in which he appeared to be more enthusiastic of European monetary union than his boss.
Sir Geoffrey, said Mrs Thatcher, was “too big a man to need a little man like the right honourable gentleman to stand up for him”. Sitting poker-faced alongside the Tory leader on the green benches of the House of Commons, his passive facial expression – well-honed as a barrister before a career in politics – did not reveal the momentous decision that he had taken in light of this half-hearted response.
He met Mrs Thatcher at 6pm, she accepted his resignation at 6.30pm and it was confirmed, as Channel Four News went on air at 7pm, that the PM had accepted the decision “more in sorrow than anger”. The fifth Minister to quit over European policy, it was significant on two other counts – Sir Geoffrey was the last surviving member of the original Thatcher cabinet formed in 1979 and his decision, driven by principle rather than their widely differing personalities, meant a leadership challenge was inevitable.
Looking back, these events were all the more momentous because the televising of Commons proceedings was still a novelty and it preceded the advent of the television revolution – evening news broadcasts were still watched by most families, because there was little alternative viewing, and setpiece hour-long interviews with great inquisitors of the calibre of the aforementioned Walden, or Sir Robin Day, had the ability to set and dominate the news agenda.
It was the same on November 13 when Sir Geoffrey, once described as a “dead sheep” by Denis Healey, delivered a 19-minute resignation speech that began mildly but rose in tone before putting the knife into Mrs Thatcher with a forcefulness that left the so-called Iron Lady looking powerless.
“The conflict of loyalty, of loyalty to the Prime Minister and of loyalty to what I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great,” he said as MPs in the Commons, eye witnesses to history unfolding before them, gasped with astonishment. “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have wrestled for too long.”
It was the precursor to Michael Heseltine launching his widely-anticipated bid for power. As The Yorkshire Post’s editorial noted : “The pressure that has now built up within the Tory party has to be released if it is not to erupt with volcanic destruction.”
Yet, while one always sensed Mrs Thatcher would win the most votes of Tory MPs, there was a general acceptance she was so damaged that she would not command sufficient authority to stay in office. With the Tories split over Europe, and the implementation of the poll tax leading to riots on the streets, Ken Clarke, the then Health Secretary, noted that the premier “lost her flair because of her pigheadedness”.
Having fallen agonisingly short of securing sufficient votes in the first ballot, and then vowing to “fight on and fight to win” in a last show of bravado, the time was up. At the outset of my career in journalism, my byline was on the front page of the local newspaper on November 22, 1990, under the banner headline ‘Thatcher must quit now’, or words to that effect, because MPs from the patch had implored the PM to step down to save herself, and her party, from further humiliation.
As the paper hit the streets, journalists huddled around the radio when it was confirmed, at 9.30am, that she had, in fact, resigned. I recall the utter disbelief – some still thought that Mrs Thatcher would find a way to soldier on because she always did.
There then followed a tour de force in the Commons – Labour had tabled a motion of no confidence in the government – in which the Tory leader rounded on her critics and declared “I’m enjoying this” as she set out her record in a triumphant style before a tearful exit from 10 Downing Street six days later once John Major had been elected.
In reflection, I do not think Mrs Thatcher could have survived for long if she had won the fateful leadership contest. The party, and the country, were in the mood for change, and there does, come a time when all governments run out of steam. I think Ken Clarke is right. Prime Ministers do become more “pigheaded” with the passage of time because they’re determined to shape their legacy while they still have a chance and do not want to be portrayed as ‘lame ducks’ with no new policies. Yet, as they become more bolder, they become weaker because the policies are ill-conceived and their critics – most notably ex-ministers – have had time to join forces and summon the courage to speak out. Back then, and just like now, European integration looms large.
But no one resigned with the brutality of Sir Geoffrey Howe whose actions were still not forgiven by some Tories at the time of his passing earlier this month. Unlike other dramatic resignations of recent times, like Robin Cook quitting over Iraq, he effectively brought down a government, and the sadness is he will be remembered for this rather than the financial reforms, and foreign policy vision, which re-established great Britain as a global power. At least he had the courage of his convictions. Not many do.
READ Bernard Ingham in The Yorkshire Post every Wednesday throughout November as he recounts Margaret Thatcher’s final weeks, and days, in office.