Revealed: Thatcher aides campaigned against Heseltine over Westland affair

Margaret Thatcher was urged by her closest advisers at the height of the 1986 Westland affair to tell her defence secretary, Michael Heseltine, to halt his campaign for a European solution to the crisis or face the sack from the cabinet, Downing Street files released on Friday show.

The delayed release of 2,000 pages of confidential correspondence in the main Westland files show her two closest advisers, Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham, fought a relentless campaign from within the heart of Downing Street against Heseltine.

The Westland affair was ostensibly about a struggle in Thatcher’s government over whether an American or European-led consortium should take over Britain’s last remaining helicopter company. But in reality it was a major power struggle between Heseltine and Thatcher, who claimed to be neutral but he believed backed the US solution.

The five newly released Downing Street files show that Thatcher’s closest advisers were deeply involved in the notorious leaking of the solicitor-general’s letter at the height of the affair but there is no “smoking gun” showing that Thatcher herself authorised its disclosure which would have brought her down.

The secret papers do show Powell, her private secretary, urging Thatcher to give her defence secretary a “shut up or quit” ultimatum at the January 1986 cabinet meeting where he resigned by walking out of No 10.

The files also show that as part of that campaign Powell “drummed up” the confidential law officers’ letter demanding Heseltine correct a “material inaccuracy” in his case. It was the leaking of the letter which led to to the resignation of the then trade and industry secretary, Leon Brittan, as he carried the can for his department being at “crossed purposes” with Downing Street over who had authorised the disclosure.

They also disclose that Downing Street officials destroyed copies of a key account of a meeting between Brittan and British Aerospace. The account by BAE’s chief executive, Sir Raymond Lygo, alleged that Brittan had accused him of anti-Americanism and put pressure on him to withdraw from the European consortium bidding for Westland. But the file does include a third undestroyed copy of the document that they refused to disclose at the time and Lygo later withdrew the allegations.

The files include a draft speaking note prepared by Powell for the speech that Thatcher made in the cabinet meeting on 6 January 1986 at which Heseltine resigned, triggering the crisis. It recalled a previous decision that no minister was to lobby for either an US or European solution but to leave it to Westland to decide.

The draft said: “You have all seen what has happened since then. We have had headlines in the papers, including those more friendly to us, talking of ‘Great Cabinet Shambles – open war between ministers’: ‘A major political mess and comment which has been no less damaging’ … There’s probably no paper which has been a more loyal supporter of this government than the Sunday Telegraph and it spoke last Sunday of a ‘National scandal - not since the chaos which preceded George Brown’s resignation from Harold Wilson’s cabinet has a British government looked so pitifully disunited.’ The affair has brought ‘ridicule on the government at home and abroad’.

“If this situation continues, we shall have no credibility left. We cannot go on like this. We must restore the government’s standing ... It must be accepted and observed by everyone, and there must be no lobbying or briefing directly or indirectly. Because of the risks of misrepresentation, even questions of fact should not be answered without being cleared through the Cabinet Office.

“Anyone who does not feel able to accept this conclusion and act in accordance with it and who continues to campaign on behalf of one or other proposal, cannot do so as a minister and should do so from outside the government.”

The last paragraph appears to have been too much for Thatcher who toned it down and replaced it with: “This applies to each and every one of us.” It was enough, however, to lead to Heseltine’s walkout.

The files also detail the background to Thatcher’s denial that she had any role in leaking the solicitor-general’s letter and the subsequent battle to ensure none of her officials or those at the DTI had to give evidence to the subsequent parliamentary inquries. She insisted Powell and Ingham had not consulted her (but acknowledged she “was present in the building”) because they believed they were not being asked to authorise the leak, only the method of disclosure and had been “at cross purposes” with Brittan’s officials at the DTI who had done the leaking.

“Of course I knew that the disclosure had happened, and, to tell the truth, was not sorry to see the subject of the disclosure become public knowledge, given the need to make sure that government statements were not misleading. But it never occurred to me to ask my people whether they had a hand in it, and they evidently did not think that they had anything which they needed to report or account for to me. It was not until … the inquiry ... that the extent or importance of the cross-purposes emerged,” she said.

As one of her own Downing Street policy unit, Peter Warry, pointed out, the problem with that was when “the opposition hear the true story they are bound to say it is unbelievable”.

Charles Moore, in his official biography of Thatcher, quotes Powell as saying that Thatcher’s “hands were not entirely clean”.

Powered by article was written by Alan Travis Home affairs editor, for The Guardian on Friday 19th February 2016 00.01 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010