Geoffrey Howe was heralded as one of the greats of the Conservative party and a “quiet hero” of the Thatcher years, after the former chancellor’s death of a suspected heart attack was announced by his family.
The Tory peer, whose devastating resignation speech on leaving the cabinet in 1990 was widely seen as the central factor in forcing Margaret Thatcher from Downing Street, was 88. His family said he passed away on Friday night at his home in Warwickshire after attending a local jazz concert with his wife, Elspeth, a crossbench peer.
Howe’s role as both an architect of Thatcher’s political revolution and eventually a key player in her downfall made him a hugely significant figure in British politics throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He served as Thatcher’s chancellor, foreign secretary and, finally, as both leader of the House of Commons and deputy prime minister. Following his resignation from Thatcher’s cabinet and his elevation to the Lords as Baron Howe of Aberavon, he continued to be a major player. In 2013, in one of his final acts in British politics, he electrified the debate on Britain’s role in Europe when he accused David Cameron in an article in the Observer of endangering Britain’s place in the EU by “running scared” of his Eurosceptic backbenchers.
On Saturday the prime minister issued a statement commending Howe as a revolutionary, and said he and the chancellor, George Osborne, had “benefited greatly” from his sage advice.
Cameron said: “Geoffrey Howe was a kind, gentle and deeply thoughtful man – but at the same time he had huge courage and resolve. His time as chancellor was vital in turning the fortunes of our country around, cutting borrowing, lowering tax rates and conquering inflation. Lifting exchange controls may seem obvious now, but it was revolutionary back then. He was the quiet hero of the first Thatcher government.
“He loved his politics and never stopped giving strong and sound advice. George Osborne and I benefited greatly from his wisdom and determination to improve the state of the country. The Conservative family has lost one of its greats.”
Osborne tweeted: “I will miss Geoffrey Howe. He was a great source of advice to me; a quietly spoken radical whose … budgets rescued Britain.”
Howe, born in Port Talbot in south Wales, read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before being called to the bar in 1952. He was appointed a QC in 1965 and first entered the Commons as the MP for Bebington in 1964.
He fought Thatcher for the leadership of the party in the 1975 contest, but over the next 15 years became one of her closest confidants.
He developed the party’s economic policies, as embodied in an opposition mini-manifesto he co-authored in 1977, The Right Approach to the Economy. Appointed as Thatcher’s chancellor following the Tories’ 1979 election victory, his tenure was marked by policies to liberalise the economy, cut income tax and reduce inflation, although at the cost of rising unemployment.
Howe’s quiet demeanour – Denis Healey, who died last week, famously claimed that an attack from Howe was “like being savaged by a dead sheep” – belied a tough streak. Moving to the Foreign Office in 1983, he enraged the opposition by banning trade union membership at GCHQ in Cheltenham.
He wanted Britain to enter the European exchange rate mechanism long before Thatcher finally agreed: it was only after he jointly threatened resignation with chancellor Nigel Lawson that she gave way.
However, the prime minister’s perception that she had been ganged up on led to a poisoning of relations with her then foreign secretary. Howe was moved to leader of the house and deputy prime minister. The move was accurately seen to be a demotion.
But beyond personal differences, Howe was increasingly becoming concerned by Thatcher’s belligerent attitude towards the EU. He resigned from the cabinet on 1 November 1990, in the aftermath of the prime minister’s position at the European council meeting in Rome the previous weekend. There she had declared for the first time that Britain would never enter a single currency.
Howe’s scathing resignation speech from the backbenches would come to haunt Thatcher. On her approach to European negotiations, he told a hushed Commons: “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”
Thatcher sat stony-faced. Ten days later she stepped down as prime minister.
Jonathan Maitland, whose take on Howe’s resignation speech, in the play Dead Sheep, broke box office records this spring at London’s Park Theatre, said the former chancellor knew he would be despised for acting against Thatcher, but felt it was the right thing to do. Maitland said: “I feel incredibly sad. He was just an absolute hero.
The easy line was to say Geoffrey was uncharismatic and boring, but he was the opposite. He was a real old-school politician.
“He took all the Captain Mainwaring stuff – which was what Denis Healey used to call him – in very good part. They were actually good friends and it is incredibly poetic they have gone at the same time.“When he joined him on the back benches Howe said it was like being “sheriffed by a dead savage”, which was his rather good riposte to the dead sheep line.”
Maitland added of Howe’s role in bringing Thatcher down: “I think he was heroic. He knew he would be despised by the party after he spoke.
“He was even in spat at in the corridors of the House of Commons. It was the most incredible political speech of the time and he was motivated, I think, by the knowledge that he was right. The Hansard editor called it the greatest parliamentary speech of all time. He was an appalling TV performer, as he acknowledged, but it came just after cameras were installed in the house and as a result everyone can remember where they were when he made that speech. It was the ferocity from a man who could seem bumbling and sweet. It was quietly brutal.”
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