10 October 2015

Geoffrey Howe: the tortoise who beat the most formidable hare of them all


Denis Healey, now Geoffrey Howe: two great adversaries from the 1970s have passed from the scene within a week of one another. Margaret Thatcher chose Sir Geoffrey to be her Shadow Chancellor, thus putting him in conflict with Mr Healey. In Commons knockabout, Geoffrey rarely prevailed. Denis Healey famously said that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep. However badly the economy was doing, Healey always retained the power to swagger and bluster. But the economy was suffering. Even if Howe could not match his rival at knockabout, he gradually built up a moral authority. Few Shadow Chancellors have worked as hard to master their brief, which was a formidable asset when he moved from shadow to substance.

To switch animal metaphors, he was a tortoise, not a hare. But over the years , that tortoise saw off a fair few hares.

Geoffrey Howe was a Welshman who was sent to Winchester. Ferdy Mount wrote that all the hwyl had been knocked out of him at school, and he certainly lost it somewhere along the line. But he retained a non-conformist seriousness of purpose. Though he may not have been a choral Welshman, the Chapel played its part in his moral make-up. That might have given him some affinity with Margaret Thatcher. Other factors supervened.

Mrs Thatcher was simply unable to warm to her colleague. She would have preferred a man with a bit of hwyl and the tensions were apparent even in Opposition. If Keith Joseph had been less agonised, less neuralgic, more politically possible, she might have moved him to replace Geoffrey. But as she probably recognised, that would have been a foolish move. She needed Geoffrey’s solidity. His very lack of flair added to the Opposition’s economic credibility.

Solidity was a vital quality in the first Thatcher term. The economy was in crisis, with inflation apparently out of control, as was unemployment, while the trade unions were waiting for the opportunity to break a third successive government. Mrs Thatcher was determined to use monetarist measures to deal with inflation, whatever the short-term consequences for unemployment. A sizable majority of senior economists, reinforced by a number of her own colleagues, though that this was mad. Geoffrey, calm, owlish, blinking, resolute, helped the PM to face down her critics and survive. Who then would have predicted that this crucially important adjutant would be the man who ended her Premiership?

His role in that embattled government was his finest hour. If she had been assassinated just after the 1983 Election, he would have been a strong candidate for the succession. Instead, the relationship continued to deteriorate.

Sir Geoffrey became Foreign Secretary. She had intended to give that job to Cecil Parkinson, but the complications over his former mistress were too great. At the Foreign Office, officials were initially in awe of their new master. He had an astonishing appetite for paper. He would read vast amounts of briefing material and then ask for more. After a time, however, they realised what was happening. He was using the paper to put off the evil moment when he had to take a decision. One senior diplomat said that Sir Geoffrey was a combination of Aristotle and Winnie the Pooh. Someone else quipped that the Foreign Secretary’s indecision was final.

This did drive Margaret Thatcher mad. As Charles Powell, her foreign affairs adviser sans pareil, commented: “Geoffrey never understood that with her, you have to get your point in the first half of the sentence, for you can never be sure that there will be a second half”. This was exacerbated by Europe. Perhaps Geoffrey had not lost all his hwyl, for he had a passionate belief in a federal Europe. That was anathema to Mrs Thatcher.

Increasingly, she could hardly bear to listen to Geoffrey or even be in the same room as him. If they were attending the same meeting abroad, she tried to ensure that they caught different planes. Davd Hannay is of the most outstanding diplomats of recent decades and not a man who is easily embarrassed. Yet he did find it embarrassing when the Prime Minister would be denouncing his boss, her Foreign Secretary, to him while Sir Geoffrey was in the same room, virtually within in earshot.

There was a fierce dispute over the ERM (European exchange-rate mechanism). Geoffrey wanted to join it because he was a fervent European. Nigel Lawson, then Chancellor, wanted to join because he thought that it would help to manage the economy and control inflation. Mrs Thatcher would not entertain the idea that she needed foreigners to help her control inflation. Yet she had to yield. Confronted by a joint threat of resignation, she agreed to the so-called Madrid conditions which eased the way for eventual ERM membership. A few weeks later, she took a partial revenge by moving Geoffrey out of the Foreign Office. But her chosen destination helped to ensure her downfall.

There is an irony. If it had not been for Cecil Parkinson’s difficulties, she would have made Geoffrey Home Secretary in 1983. That is the job she should have given him in 1989. He would then have immersed himself in detail, leaving little time for his discontents to simmer. Instead, she made him Leader of the House: in charge of the government’s business in the House of Commons.

That can only work if there is a close working relationship with the Prime Minister. There could be no such relationship between Thatcher and Howe. Moreover, the Leader of the House is not overwhelmed with detail. Geoffrey had time to brood and plot. Anthony Howard wrote that by the end, Harold Macmillan had come to regard Rab Butler as an old trout who could be tickled at will. By 1990, Mrs Thatcher had a similar view of Geoffrey Howe – thought in her case, there would have been no tickling: more a matter of verbal ear-boxing. But as Confucius should have written, never turn your back on a turning worm. When she came home from another European summit and poured scorn on our EU partners’ ambitions, Geoffrey’s patience broke. He resigned. A few days later, he delivered one of the most important speeches of the Twentieth Century.

When he rose to his feet, Mrs Thatcher’s position was shaky. By the time he sat down, she was in mortal peril. It had been less of a speech than a lighting of the blue touch-paper. She could have survived a lesser performance. He had lighted the blue-touch paper. The tortoise had defeated the most most formidable hare of them all.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator