Bernard Ingham: The worm that turned and brought down the Iron Lady

IN his latest column reflecting on the events which preceded Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in November 1990, Sir Bernard Ingham considers the impact of Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation.

MOGADON Man was a curious cove. There was far more than met the eye to the shambling form of the late Lord (Geoffrey) Howe who triggered Margaret Thatcher’s demise 25 years ago this month.

He was not for nothing a QC. His attention to detail as Solicitor General in the formulation of the Heath government’s ill-fated Industrial Relations Act was exhausting.

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His contribution to the economic rebuilding of Britain as Margaret Thatcher’s first term Chancellor was fundamental. He had the guts to do the right thing and soak up the consequent punishment from the economic establishment. His heroism is undersung.

This is because his next move – to the Foreign Office – was disastrous. On most things – and notably on Westland, Europe and South Africa – he was soon at odds with Thatcher and, worse still, brought out the bully in her. Not for him fierce argument and noisy rows. Hence Denis Healey’s description of being assailed by Howe as “like being savaged by and dead sheep”.

No Minister in the 1980s was handbagged so much so resolutely. He just soaked it up.

Once she found her feet in the world, she became her own Foreign Secretary. He dreamt of release as the next Prime Minister. As early as 1986, during the Westland affair, he apparently regarded himself as the prime candidate to succeed her if that ludicrous crisis brought her down. He did not seem to appreciate he was a charisma-free zone. Such is man’s capacity for self-delusion.

I ended up piggy in the middle. In 2009 I discovered in papers for a London University seminar on South Africa that on August 1, 1986, Howe wrote to Thatcher – “My dear Margaret” – effectively calling for my dismissal because of my forthright briefing and inability, he feared, to handle the South African question “sensitively”.

I have no evidence she ever replied and I do not kid myself that he primarily sought my head. After all, I did not invent No 10 policies. My job was to relay and explain them and to reflect the Prime Minister’s line.

Howe eventually screwed up courage to address his real target – Thatcher – when he resigned as Deputy Prime Minister on November 1, 1990. He said he did not feel he could “any longer serve with honour as a member of your Government” because he was unable to share her view of the “right approach” to Europe.

Thatcher’s reply to his resignation letter was somewhat disingenuous. She did not believe their differences were as great as he suggested and even claimed they were “at one” in wanting “to be part of the further political, economic and monetary development of the European Community”. You could have kidded me. At best, you could say “Only up to a point, Lord Copper”.

If they were so at one, why did she shift him from the FCO in 1989 to lead the Commons, conceding in the process his demand for the title of Deputy PM?

Incidentally, I was immediately accused of undermining him when, in response to some unrealistic claims by Howe’s friends, I told the political correspondents that the post was in the PM’s gift and had no constitutional underpinning.

I knew that Howe would never figure anywhere near as large in her life as Deputy PM as Willie Whitelaw had done before him because, unlike Whitelaw, he wanted her job.

And so it came to pass that after 15 months in the job, Howe, the last remaining member of Thatcher’s first cabinet, found the resolve to resign.

The worm turned and 
opened up the distinct possibility of another Tory leadership election.

Immediately, Michael Heseltine, smouldering after four years on the backbenches, threw down a tentative gauntlet by writing an open letter to his constituency chairman about the need for a new course on Europe.

An edgy, uncertain fortnight ensued before Howe blew Thatcher and himself up with a curiously delayed but explosive resignation speech on the floor of the Commons on November 13, 1990. Nobody thought he had it in him.

In complaining about the captain breaking his bats before he could even get to the wicket, he demonstrated his utter hypocrisy, bearing in mind how often my wicket as No 10 Press secretary had been watered by his agents.

Heseltine, left with no choice but to prove he was a man and not just a flashy mouse, lodged his nomination.

Would the Tories reject the 20th century’s longest serving PM after three consecutive election triumphs? They wouldn’t dare, would they? Surely not, we thought, but….