Howe Resignation Speech: ‘playing with broken bats’

By Chris McCarthy

We have paid heavily in the past for late starts and squandered opportunities in Europe. We dare not let that happen again…the effects will be incalculable and very hard ever to correct.

Sir Geoffrey Howe, 13 November 1990

The Labour MP and then Chancellor Denis Healey, famously quipped during a House of Commons debate in 1978 that being attached by Geoffrey Howe was “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Within 12 months Healey found himself in opposition, a Labour wilderness that lasted 18 years and four consecutive election cycles. Howe’s ‘savage attack’ on that occasion did not precipitate the Government’s defeat, but 12 years later his devastating resignation speech on 13 November 1990 would expedite Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s downfall in one of the most dramatic episodes in modern British political history.

A dutiful stalwart and loyal soldier of Thatcher’s premiership, Howe was her longest-serving Cabinet minister serving as Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the Commons and Deputy Prime Minister. The visibly pained expression on Thatcher’s face as Howe spoke just three rows behind her with a nodding Nigel Lawson sat next to him, probably hinted more at her hurt at the public denouncement from an old friend than the growing realisation that her position as leader was becoming untenable.

Thatcher’s obduracy, a hallmark of her premiership that endeared her to many as she confronted the Unions and tackled spiraling inflation with strict fiscal policy, had generated growing discord amongst her party over Europe. Compounding the disharmony, the poll tax riots earlier in the year had boosted Labour’s popularity and defeat at the next election was looking increasingly likely.

Howe’s criticisms were not new but they reinforced the substantial policy divide hardening within the Conservative Party and the speech forcefully countered the line from Downing Street that Howe’s resignation had been a matter of style and not policy. The famous cricket metaphor, in which he criticised the Prime Minister for undermining the policies on monetary union in Europe proposed by her Chancellor and the Bank of England Governor, elicited loud guffaws from the packed chamber but struck a very serious point on both style and policy and sent an overt challenge to the sustainability of Thatcher’s tenure.

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.

Thatcher’s flagrant hostility towards Europe and the European Monetary System in particular, risked isolating Britain, argued Howe, leaving the country “scrambling to join the club later, after the rules have been set and after the power has been distributed by others to our disadvantage.” The Prime Minister’s forthright objection to a single currency at the Rome European Council which had met two weeks prior, compromised Britain’s opportunity to “hold, and retain, a position of influence in this vital debate.” Thatcher’s attitude towards Europe was “running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation.”

The tipping point for Howe, the moment he recognised his loyalty to the Prime Minister above the interests of the nation could no longer be sustained, came when his efforts to persuade his colleagues in Government had become futile: “Trying to pretend that there was a common policy when every step forward risked being subverted by some causal comment or impulsive answer.” It was a sentiment, he concluded, that other members of the party and Cabinet should also start to consider, a “tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrested for perhaps too long.”

The speech did not match the bombastic rhetoric of Churchill or the soaring oratory of Kennedy; that was never Howe’s style and in this instance it didn’t need to be. The arguments were devastating in their frankness. Nine days after this dead sheep had savaged the most electorally successful Conservative post-war prime ministers, Thatcher resigned from office; a vast edifice of Twentieth Century politics toppled in no small part by one of the most dramatic resignation speeches in British history.

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