It is the supreme irony of his long Westminster career that the political legacy of Geoffrey Howe, Lord Howe of Aberavon, will not be the 20 years he spent continuously on the Conservative front bench, which included occupying two of the great offices of state, but the manner of his departure from government, successfully precipitating, as he intended, the fall of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1990.
The man whom Thatcher had once described as “a brilliant young Tory barrister” used his own resignation to make unquestionably the most powerful speech of his career in the House of Commons, drawing attention to the “tragic conflict of loyalties” that existed within the then Conservative government over its future approach to Europe, and effectively inviting the challenge to Thatcher’s leadership that would lead within two weeks to the election of John Major.
Howe, who has died aged 88, had himself earlier aspired to the leadership of the Conservative party, although after leaving office he publicly asked: “Did I ever have what it takes?”
His readiness to seek compromise had persuaded him the previous year to accept his humiliating demotion from the job of foreign secretary to become leader of the house, instead of resigning then and mounting his own challenge to Thatcher. His meek decision to remain in office, having insisted upon the meaningless title of deputy prime minister, allowed his resentment to fester but also disqualified him from the succession stakes. In her memoirs, Thatcher wrote: “This quiet, gentle, but deeply ambitious man – with whom my relations had become progressively worse, as my exasperation at his insatiable appetite for compromise led me sometimes to lash out at him in front of others – was now out to make trouble for me if he possibly could.”
Earlier in the Thatcher government, however, as a forceful chancellor of the exchequer during the difficult four years to 1983 and then as the last cold-war foreign secretary for the next six years, Howe had been one of the pivotal figures on whom the prime minister depended. He was the longest-serving minister in her government and won something of a reputation as a great survivor. Howe was wont in later years to compare their relationship to that of a couple in a stormy marriage, a simile that would certainly not have appealed to his own fiercely strong-minded wife, Elspeth, who notoriously did not get on with Thatcher. But it was undoubtedly the case that his low-key, patient, intensely loyal determination provided the underpinning that enabled Thatcher successfully to pursue the radical monetarist financial policies that marked her administration.
In a series of budgets, he oversaw a shift from direct to indirect taxation, the abolition of exchange controls – which he described as “the most difficult and lonely decision I took as chancellor” – the institution of a medium-term financial strategy and the wholesale privatisation of utilities. He was fiercely criticised, notably in a letter to the Times signed by 364 academic economists, but his alliance with Thatcher to deliver the policies she sought gave them by the time of the 1983 election a formidable combined political strength, enabling both prime minister and chancellor to withstand even their own party critics. While Howe was derided by some on the left of the Conservative party, he did not become personally unpopular and was justified in retaining some hopes of eventually succeeding to the leadership.
Similarly he was a powerful foreign secretary, who successfully pursued detente with the communist world and encouraged the emergent democracies of eastern Europe, acting on behalf of a prime minister who was seeking to enhance the international stature of the UK.
He was brave in encouraging dissidents in eastern Europe and on one foreign visit took part in a decoy party in a Gypsy wine cellar in Prague, singing Cwm Rhondda for his official hosts, while his own FCO officials secretly met the Czechoslovakian government’s political opponents on the Charles bridge. A note passed to him after the meeting with members of Charter 77 was said to have read “mission accomplished”. In fact the note had read: “Doesn’t the Gypsy fiddler remind you of Ernest Borgnine?” and Howe had replied: “Rather more like Nigel Lawson, I think?”
He had a good relationship with the US secretary of state George Shultz, reflecting that of Thatcher with President Ronald Reagan, and he was intimately involved in the negotiations with China over the future of Hong Kong. He played an important part as an emissary of the European community in attempting to end apartheid in South Africa, an issue which dominated Commonwealth affairs throughout the 1980s.
But it was, of course, his passionate belief in Britain’s future within an integrated European Union and the moves towards economic and monetary union at the Madrid European summit in 1988 which increasingly brought him, and Lawson, his successor as chancellor, into conflict with Thatcher and ultimately led to the end of all three of their careers in government.
Howe’s political career was certainly hampered by his ineffably dull speaking style. He brought to parliamentary debates all the jury-numbing skills he had earlier practised as a lawyer specialising in the intricacies of industrial relations. He was nicknamed Mogadon man after a fashionable sleeping pill of the day, while Denis Healey memorably likened an attack by Howe on his own policies as chancellor in 1978 to “being savaged by a dead sheep”. Despite their antipathy across the floor of the Commons, Howe and Healey and their wives were actually close friends in private, sharing an enthusiasm for music. Both couples had been married in the same church and dined together discreetly on a regular basis.
Though Howe had a lugubrious appearance and manner, he was a profoundly funny man. He had a quirky sense of humour, was an excellent anecdotalist, and was warm, unpretentious and unfailingly courteous.
Geoffrey was born in Aberavon, a district of Port Talbot, Glamorganshire, into a comfortable professional household with a maid, a piano in the sitting-room and two cars in the driveway. His Welsh-speaking father, Edward, was a lawyer who became the coroner for West Glamorgan and clerk to the Aberavon county justices. His grandfather, also Edward, had been a founder member of the Tinplaters’ Union. The Howe side of the family voted Labour or Liberal. Geoffrey’s mother Lili (nee Thomson) was half Cornish and half Scottish, an instinctive Conservative and became a magistrate and a charity worker.
Geoffrey attended a local preparatory school, then Abberley Hall, near Worcester, where he discarded his Welsh accent and secured a place as an exhibitioner at Winchester college. His first encounter with what he described as creative accounting was winning the inter-house National Savings competition. After school he did three years’ national service, undertaking a six-month course in physics and advanced mathematics before setting off for the lower slopes of Mount Kenya as a second lieutenant with the Royal Corps of Signals.
He knew that he wanted to be a lawyer and went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read law in 1948. He had also already acquired an appetite for politics, “thinking, talking, brooding and beavering” on the subject from his early teens, and joined the university Conservative Association, which he chaired in 1951. But he was typically assiduous, secured his degree and was called to the bar at Middle Temple in 1952. He established himself as a highly competent lawyer, specialising in industrial cases on the Wales and Chester circuit, an experience which would help him once he was in parliament. He took silk in 1965 and became a high earner in the courtroom.
In 1966 he represented 12 National Coal Board officials at the Aberfan inquiry into the slippage of a tip of spoil that engulfed a school, causing the death of 116 children and 28 adults. “As a politician I was appalled by the insensitivity of a state-owned industrial monolith in a small community, whose livelihood depended upon it,” he wrote of that sombre experience. In 1969 he chaired an inquiry into cruelty at Ely hospital, Cardiff, and he was also a member of a Tory inquiry set up by Edward Heath in 1969 to examine discrimination against women, particularly in the tax system, which he later legislated to change.
In pursuit of his political interests, he was involved in the development of the Bow Group, an internal party group of “young modernisers”, which influenced much of his thinking and came to have a significant role in Tory policy for the next generation of aspirant politicians. He chaired the group in 1955 and was managing director and later editor of its influential newsletter, Crossbow.
In the general elections of 1955 and 1959 he fought with predictable lack of success as the Conservative candidate for his home constituency of Aberavon, a rock solid Labour seat, but in 1964 he was rewarded with the candidacy of the marginal seat of Bebington, Wirral, which he won but held for only two years. It was nevertheless a useful introduction to Westminster; he was on the opposition frontbench as a spokesman on labour and social services for a year and when he returned to the Commons for the safe Tory seat of Reigate (later Surrey East) in 1970, Heath immediately appointed him solicitor general and awarded him a knighthood.
The issue of labour relations dominated the Heath government and ultimately brought it down in 1974. Howe’s first job in government was securing the passage of the hugely controversial Industrial Relations Act of 1971, which provoked considerable unrest and led to demonstrations against the government, its legislation and the National Industrial Relations court set up by the act.
Once the legislation was on the statute book, he was next given responsibility for the European communities bill, the legislation designed to secure UK membership of what was then known as the common market, but which was not then a subject of dispute within the Tory party. The bill had 12 clauses and four schedules and was carried through the Commons with a few Conservative and Unionist dissidents opposing, but without an amendment. In 1972 Heath moved Howe to become minister of trade at the Department of Trade and Industry, where he remained until the 1974 Tory defeat.
Howe did not contest the first round of the leadership election in 1975, out of loyalty to Heath. He stood in the second round, however, when Heath had dropped out, coming equal third with James Prior, with 19 votes each after William Whitelaw in second place and Thatcher, elected party leader. In his campaign he urged strict control of public spending, monetary restraint, a government dialogue with industry on wages and indexation of benefits. Thatcher named him as her Treasury spokesman.
Howe retired from the Commons in 1992 and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. In retirement he took on a number of non-executive directorships and advisory posts in legal, political and academic spheres. Elspeth (nee Morton Shand), whom he married in 1953, was a former deputy chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and chaired the Broadcasting Standards Commission. She was made a life peer in 2001 as Lady Howe of Idlicote and they were one of the few couples in the House of Lords to both hold titles in their own right. In May 2015, he announced his retirement from the Lords.
He is survived by Elspeth and their three children, Caroline (Cary), and twins, Amanda and Alec.
• Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe, Lord Howe of Aberavon, politician and lawyer, born 20 December 1926; died 9 October 2015
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