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Geoffrey Howe – the story behind the greatest Commons speech ever made

PA Photo 13/11/1990 Sir Geoffrey Howe speaking at the House of Commons in London - Credit: PA

Geoffrey Howe – the story behind the greatest Commons speech ever made.

The most memorable thing about Sir Geoffrey Howe was how unmemorable he was.

Margaret Thatcher’s most decorated cabinet colleague – he was her chancellor, foreign secretary and deputy prime minister – had many qualities but charisma wasn’t one of them. Hence Denis Healey’s famous put down: debating with Geoffrey, said the labour bruiser, was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”.

How extraordinary then, that Howe ended up making the greatest parliamentary speech ever, as judged by the editor of Hansard, almost 30 years ago to this day. In 15 electrifying minutes on the afternoon of November 13, 1990, the pompous, dumpy, bespectacled Captain Mainwaring of the Tory party destroyed Mrs Thatcher with rhetoric Churchill, Mandela and King would have been proud of.

“It is a conflict of loyalty with which I have perhaps wrestled too long”, said Howe, a passionate pro-European, referring to Thatcher’s eurosceptic grandstanding. “How on earth are…(we)…supposed to conduct complex negotiations in good faith with our European partners against that kind of background noise?”

Zinger followed zinger. When Howe sat down to a stunned, silent Commons everyone knew Thatcher was gone. Nine days later she resigned. It was shocking because it was unexpected: no one saw it coming.

So just how did a famously boring speaker end up making one of the greatest speeches ever? It’s a question I found myself pondering many times over the years whenever Howe’s speech featured in films, plays and documentaries.

Frustratingly, the question was never answered satisfactorily: each re-telling simply trotted out the same old received wisdom: Howe was a mediocre Home Counties Judas who wanted revenge on Thatcher for demoting him from foreign secretary to the non-job of deputy PM. Having covered the story at the time as a reporter for Radio 4’s Today programme I always felt there was more to it than that.

Finally, after the umpteenth lazy rehash, I decided to investigate properly, sensing there might be a play in it. There was, after all, an enticing dramatic arc on offer: Howe’s journey from dead sheep to (pardon the mixed animal metaphor) mouse that roared.

After reading countless books (including Howe’s not-exactly-a-page-turner 900-page autobiography Conflict of Loyalty) and conversations with Howe himself and his wife, advisers and colleagues, there was indeed a play in it.

Dead Sheep – what else? – Opened in London in 2015, the year Howe died, and toured the UK the year after. And despite it being an old fashioned, analogue tale dominated by Messrs Pale, Male and Stale (welcome to politics in the 1980s) the story still fascinates and resonates today.

This was Remain versus Brexit a quarter of a century before its time. The story of an unglamorous statesman versus a play-to-the-gallery populist: Starmer v Johnson, Biden v Trump. And it was about marriage. Geoffrey had two: his long, happy one to Elspeth, a formidable feminist and political campaigner, but also a successful political one – until the divorce – to Thatcher, with whom he shared three thumping election victories.

So what was the real story behind this momentous, history-changing speech? Was it actually written by Elspeth, as many have claimed? And what petrol fuelled it? Honour? Revenge? Ambition? Authorship first. Elspeth certainly had the motivation to write it: she couldn’t stand Thatcher and vice versa.

Tory grandee John Biffen said the two women were like “wasps in a jam jar”. Elspeth loathed Thatcher’s belittling of Geoffrey in cabinet and in public and thought she lacked compassion; Thatcher suspected Elspeth of insurrection and was threatened by her (relatively) hard core feminism.

In fact, Geoffrey wrote the speech, with input from his adviser Anthony Teasdale. But Elspeth inspired it: she gave him the moral courage to act. And she must get credit for the speech’s most quoted passage.

When Geoffrey was fine tuning, Elspeth alerted him to Thatcher’s rabble-rousing turn at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in which she boasted of despatching critics, Ian Botham style: “the bowling’s going to get hit all round the ground!” Crowed the PM. “That’s my style!”

Elspeth, a keen cricketer – she was captain of her school team – suggested Geoffrey develop the metaphor, to show what it was like to be undermined and contradicted by your boss in public. He did so, brilliantly: “Mr Speaker. I believe the chancellor and the governor (of the Bank of England) are cricketing enthusiasts, so I hope there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors.

“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.”

It was brilliant because it was brutal – the bit about breaking bats – but also subtle. The line “I hope there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors” being a sly, witty dig at his boss’s imperiousness.

But the most important factor of all was what ancient Greeks called kairos: timing. Howe picked the perfect moment to drop his bomb.
Thatcher had reigned for 11 years and was losing her touch, particularly over the hated poll tax. And crucially, his speech was made just two days before the closing date for nominations for leadership of the Tory party.

Had he made his speech six months earlier Thatcher would probably have ridden it out. By acting so forcefully, so close to the deadline, Howe blew the contest wide open. The final bit of kairos came via the TV cameras, which had been allowed into parliament for the first time just months earlier.

Thatcher’s humiliation was thus rendered fatally public.

The hardest question of all concerned Howe’s motive. That’s an impossible one to answer definitively: who knows what really goes on in the hearts and minds of men? My feeling is that he was propelled by three things: honour, ambition and vengeance.

Honour first. Although patriotic, he was a committed europhile and believed Thatcher’s anti-EU bile harmed the national interest. For him, Europe wasn’t a convenient peg to hang his political ambitions on, Boris Johnson-style. But then again he did have real ambition.

As he wrote in his autobiography: “every soldier has a field marshall’s baton in his knapsack.” As for vengeance, he also wrote of his embarrassment at being belittled by Thatcher.

Towards the end of their working relationship his one-time friend and ally would shout at him in cabinet to “speak up Geoffrey!” And joke about his verbosity and ponderousness. He didn’t admit to wanting revenge of course. But you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to divine a subconscious element of payback there.

I thought about Geoffrey a lot during Theresa May’s Brexit Bill trauma. If only someone with his heft – Labour or Tory – had grasped the moment with some brilliant rhetoric, the deal could have passed and May would have survived. And we wouldn’t be enduring the most tragically incompetent, ideologically vacuous PM of modern times. Where are you Geoffrey – or your modern equivalent – now we need you most?

Jonathan Maitland’s play Dead Sheep is being published by Salamander Street Classic Texts

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