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Geoffrey Howe remembered for devastating resignation speech which ultimately destroyed Margaret Thatcher

Published 10/10/2015

Lord Geoffrey Howe has died aged 88
Lord Geoffrey Howe has died aged 88

Lord Howe of Aberavon - better known as Sir Geoffrey Howe - was the man whose devastating resignation speech was the catalyst which ultimately destroyed Margaret Thatcher.

In just 18 almost unbearable minutes, MPs gasped with amazement and Mrs Thatcher herself sat white with fury and trembling, as the colleague who had served with her in the Cabinet throughout her premiership delivered a clinically cold but savage denunciation of her attitude to Europe.

It was one of the most dramatic and intense moments in the House of Commons of the 20th century. His speech was all the more terrible since it emanated from probably the least vociferous senior figure at Westminster.

Geoffrey Howe, who had been abruptly dismissed as Foreign Secretary in 1989 and who resigned from the unreal post of Deputy Prime Minister the following year, became increasingly exasperated at her so-called "foghorn diplomacy" towards Europe.

Some believed there was an element of revenge in his public savaging of a woman who, in the eyes of many people, had meted out a shabby deal to a colleague after years of loyal, devoted, skilful and uncomplaining service to her.

In fact, such personal emotions never entered his head nor, according to his own words, was there the slightest element of conspiracy about his action, nor any intention to pave the way for Michael Heseltine to challenge Mrs Thatcher for the leadership - something which, nonetheless, happened imminently.

He wrote in his book Conflict Of Loyalty: "I was determined to remain innocent of any charges or conspiracy or concertation. I could not be seen to act in a way that implied, quite falsely, that I might have resigned to catapult Michael into the leadership."

Later, he quoted, with evident satisfaction, the Daily Mail's comments: "Howe put his finger on the real weakness of Mrs Thatcher's premiership - her inability to unite the party over Europe, or even to convince it that she is doing her best to keep it together."

Occasionally, as he spoke, Mrs Thatcher visibly flinched at the potency of his words.

At one point he said: "We commit a serious error if we think always in terms of 'surrendering' sovereignty and seek to stand pat for all time on a given deal - by proclaiming, as the Prime Minister did two weeks ago, that we have 'surrendered enough'.

"The European enterprise is not and should not be seen like that - as some kind of zero-sum game ..."

And he spoke of Mrs Thatcher's "nightmare image" of Europe, asking: "What kind of vision is that for our business people, who trade there each day, for our financiers, who seek to make London the money capital of Europe, or for all the young people of today?"

And in possibly the most savage passage, he said of Mrs Thatcher's attitude towards Europe and how her Chancellor and Bank of England officials could cope: "It is 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."

And he warned that the Prime Minister's perceived attitude towards Europe was "running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation".

The speech was all the more devastating coming as it did from a man who left the abiding impression of being mild-mannered, moderate in his language and serene in his general demeanour.

But there had been plenty to raise his hackles. The Prime Minister had abruptly sacked him from the Foreign Office in 1989, offering him the Leadership of the House, a clear humiliation.

When he asked her "Was not the Foreign Office still the right place?", she told him "That option is not open", adding that she needed a younger face at the Foreign Office.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, Lord Howe eventually agreed to assume the title of Deputy Prime Minister, but it was an empty one, despite promises to the contrary.

He was clearly unhappy as Leader of the House and finally, as the rift widened to unbridgeable proportions between him and the Prime Minister, he quit the Government altogether.

It was a sad end to an illustrious ministerial career, and in his letter of resignation, Lord Howe gave a hint of the power of his speech to come, saying: "I am deeply anxious that the mood you have struck - most notably in Rome last weekend and in the Commons this Tuesday - will make it more difficult for Britain to hold and retain a position of influence in this vital (European) debate."

All this has tended to overshadow his years of service as Chancellor and then as Foreign Secretary during the bulk of Thatcher's premiership.

As the first committed monetarist Chancellor, he laid the foundations for Britain's economic revival.

Then as Foreign Secretary he ensured Britain continued to have a high profile on the international stage.

Throughout his political career he kept his reputation as plodding and methodical, but Mrs Thatcher often publicly praised him for his mastery of detail and his ability to grasp the most complex brief with total command.

Labour's Denis Healey once said that being attacked by Lord Howe was "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but he was by no means as docile as that famous jibe implied.

Indeed, long after he had "retired" to the House of Lords, Lord Howe was active in opposing what he felt were the damaging anti-European policies of the new Tory leader, William Hague, early in 1998.

Lord Howe was the instigator of a letter, published in The Independent newspaper and signed by the "old guard" of Tories, including Sir Edward Heath and Mr Heseltine, condemning these policies and those reopening the wounds over Europe which had been so destructive to the Tories over the previous few years.

The Tories won the May 1979 election with commitment to cut taxes and public spending and control inflation through monetarism.

Lord Howe was appointed Chancellor and told to carry through the new economic thinking.

The Keynesian economics which had been central to British politics since the Second World War were no more. He inherited an economy with inflation at around 10% and unemployment at 1.3 million.

His first Budget marked a substantial shift from the past. Income tax rates were cut dramatically, VAT went up to 15% and, amid wide protests, the Government began the task of cutting public spending.

Interest rates were pushed up to cut the money supply and control inflation.

The Tories soon became unpopular as the effects of this first Budget were felt. Inflation went up, not down, eventually hitting 20%, unemployment began to soar and high interest rates hit mortgage payers.

By 1981 the Government, slumping in the opinion polls, was deeply concerned about rising prices.

Lord Howe's Budget of that year contained a package of measures, unpopular at the time, which have since been seen as helping turn the economy round to prosperity later in the decade.

Petrol went up by 20p a gallon and drink and cigarette duties were increased by 30%.

The effects were dramatic. By the June 1983 election, Lord Howe had inflation down to just under 4%. The economy had been stabilised, but at a price - three million people were without work.

Economists have argued the real benefits of those early Budgets were not to be felt until the later years of Conservative government.

After Mrs Thatcher's victory in 1983, Lord Howe's success was rewarded with a move to the Foreign Office. As Foreign Secretary, he soon gained the reputation as a statesman and remained a firm ally of Mrs Thatcher.

In 1983, the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union was at its height and the shooting down of a Korean airliner over USSR territory by a Soviet fighter pilot worsened relations still further.

By 1989 the Gorbachev era was well under way and Lord Howe celebrated becoming the longest-serving British Foreign Secretary since the First World War.

He had travelled more for Britain than any of his predecessors, clocking up more than 700,000 official miles, at an average of 340 miles a day - roughly the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe every 80 days.

During his years at the Foreign Office he demonstrated the rewards of survival for politicians with stamina and self-belief. He showed that a British politician could still advance by patience and hard slog.

Lord Howe could claim credit on several issues for saving Mrs Thatcher from pushing Britain into a corner, most notably perhaps over the future of Hong Kong and the European Community budget.

He presided calmly over a number of controversial issues including sanctions against South Africa, the future of Gibraltar, the Iran-Iraq conflict and the row over trade unions at GCHQ Cheltenham.

Britain remained a firm ally of the United States through the deployment of cruise missiles, the American bombing of Tripoli using aircraft based in Britain and the controversial US invasion of Grenada.

Lord Howe, born Geoffrey Richard Edward Howe on December 20 1926 in Port Talbot, was educated at Winchester College, then Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He was married with three children.

He contested Aberavon in 1955 and 1959 and became MP for Bebington between 1964 and 1966. He was elected MP for Reigate in 1970 and represented East Surrey from 1974 following boundary changes.

During the Heath Government he held the post of Solicitor General and then became Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs.

He went on to contest the Conservative Party leadership in 1975 but it was Mrs Thatcher who won the party's support. He became a QC in 1965 and was knighted in 1970.

He was made a life peer in 1992 and retired from the House of Lords in May - more than 50 years after entering Parliament, under legislation passed last year. He last spoke in the chamber in February during a question about the Gurkhas.

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