Some admirers of Margaret Thatcher will never forgive Geoffrey Howe for helping to bring her down: his resignation speech, perhaps the most dramatic he ever made, set in motion the leadership challenge that ousted a three-times triumphant Prime Minister who had never been defeated at the polls. It left a question of legitimacy hanging over her successor, John Major, which even his startling 1992 election victory did not dispel – and a legacy of bitterness that haunted his Government, the Hague and Duncan-Smith opposition years, and a generation of Conservative politics.
Some of those who have entered the party during the Cameron years may think only of Howe in relation to that speech, and presume that he was what used to be called, during the 1980s, a “wet”. Not so. Howe was the first in a long line of Bow Group Tories (including Norman Lamont, Leon Brittan and Peter Lilley) to champion free market economics at a time when Keynesianism was still the establishment doctrine. In this context, he was an admirer of Enoch Powell during the 1960s. During the early 1980s, during Thatcher’s first term, his dogged tenure at the Treasury saw monetarist budgets, reductions in the rate of spending, and a radical break with the post-war economic consensus.
So there is a Howe paradox. He helped to bring Thatcher down, but also to made Thatcherism possible. For it was those unrelenting budgets that prepared the way for Britain’s recovery during the 1980s: in their very early years he was one of the few members of her Cabinet on whom Thatcher could rely. What separated them was not economics but Europe. The targeting of Denis Healey’s “dead sheep” gibe was precise about style – most of the time – but sloppy on substance: beneath the monotone manner beat a passionate heart, at least when it came to Britain’s engagement with Europe.
For Howe was a fervent believer in the European project, and this conviction increasingly separated the Foreign Secretary (as he became after leaving the Treasury) from Thatcher. He pressed with Nigel Lawson for ERM membership. She moved him to Leader of the House, and treated him with increasing contempt. This incurred not only the resentment of Howe but the wrath of his wife, Elspeth, whose brand of conservatism wasn’t Thatcher’s (she sits as a crossbench peer). A week ago, Healey passed away. Today comes the news of Howe’s own death. They “accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party“. ConservativeHome sends commiserations to his widow and family.