Geoffrey Howes resignation speech
Geoffrey Howe's Resignation Speech undermines Margaret Thatcher, November 13 1990
In his several decades of service at a senior level in the Conservative Party, Geoffrey Howe was generally seen as an intellectually brilliant strategist and policy maker, but not as a street fighter. Indeed in 1978 Labour politician Denis Healey had memorably said after being opposed in the House by Howe it had been: "Like being savaged by a dead sheep." In his resignation speech made on November 13 1990, however, Howe managed to undermine Margaret Thatcher with something rare indeed, spectacular understatement.
Howe had resigned from his post as Deputy Prime Minister on November 1, finally convinced the economic and European policies he believed in could not be put into effect within the government as it then existed. The final straw, it seemed, was Margaret Thatcher ruling out forever the possibility of Britain joining a single European currency.
Number 10 attempted, not without success, to paper over the cracks by claiming there were merely stylistic differences between the PM and the now ex-Deputy PM. Howe began his resignation speech with a witty dismissal of this view: "If some of my former colleagues are to be believed, I must be the first Minister in history who has resigned because he was in full agreement with Government policy."
He then proceeded with a quiet but devastating critique of Thatcherite views on European economic integration, and the general European project: "The European enterprise is not and should not be seen like that - as some kind of zero sum game." The end of his speech, which expressed genuine regret at being torn between loyalty to the PM and certain vital elements of his political beliefs, slid a beautifully polished and very elegant stiletto into Margaret Thatcher's Premiership: "I have done what I believe to be right for my party and my country. The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long."
It was a call to rebellion by a greatly respected Conservative thinker, a heavyweight in Parliament. Michael Heseltine had to pick up the gauntlet thrown by Howe and stand against Thatcher, indeed had he not done so he would surely have lost credibility. A most un-Howe-like frenzy of debate and behind-the-scenes activity was unleashed. On November 22 , just nine days later, Margaret Thatcher resigned.
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