Obituary: Sir Geoffrey Howe, Conservative politician

Sir Geoffrey Howe, Conservative politician whose resignation speech heralded Thatcher's departure. Picture: PA
Sir Geoffrey Howe, Conservative politician whose resignation speech heralded Thatcher's departure. Picture: PA
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Born: 20 December, 1926, in Port Talbot. Died: 9 October 2015 in Warwickshire, aged 88.

Geoffrey Howe held two of the senior posts in the Cabinet under Margaret Thatcher (chancellor of the exchequer and foreign secretary) but his deliberate calculating manner never quite made him a favourite with the public. Howe was a politician who studied his brief and knew the facts before coming to the House or making a speech. He was a consummate diplomat who argued his corner with a quiet, determined zeal. Maybe that was what estranged Howe and Thatcher. She enjoyed a good political fisticuffs: he preferred reasoned argument and to discuss facts.

So when, in 1990, Howe made his famous and ultimately scathing resignation speech from the backbenches he summed up their difficult relationship. Howe criticised Thatcher’s approach to Europe and her “No, No, No” speech about further integration. Famously, in his resignation speech he was no less forthright. On her approach to European negotiations, he said: “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” The Opposition benches cheered and laughed; Thatcher sat stony-faced. A fortnight later she resigned and Michael Heseltine and John Major stood for the leadership of the party.

Thatcher, in her autobiography admitted: “The gaps between us were as much a matter of personal antipathy as of policy difference.”

Howe was a man of considerable intellect, calmly articulate and mild mannered. He was, however, the quiet hero of the Thatcher era who made many of the prime minister’s policies work: her key colleague and, at the beginning, one of her closest advisers. Under the rather avuncular appearance lay a steely resolve and an implacable will power.

Although a proud and ardent Welshman Howe claimed to be a quarter Scottish, a quarter Cornish and half Welsh. But his Welsh upbringing was evident in his love of singing – which he often did on social occasions.

Tam Dalyell told The Scotsman yesterday, “Geoffrey was a friend and political opponent in that order. I often paired with him in the House and opposition MPs who disagreed with his politics respected his courtesy and charm. He was a gentle and kind man but had political beliefs of steel.

“I was in the chamber for his resignation speech and it was electrifying – lightning in a blue sky.”

Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe was the son of an economist and after Winchester College he did his national service in the Royal Corps of Signals. He read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and was chairman of the University Conservative Association. He was called to the Bar in 1952 and made a QC in 1965. Howe failed to become an MP in 1955 and ’59 but was chairman of the influential Bow Group and with Keith Joseph wrote The Right Approach to the Economy which laid down the principals of monetarism.

He won Bebington in 1964 but served as MP principally for East Surrey (1974 – 1992). His first ministerial post was in Edward Heath’s government as solicitor general. His renown in the party grew but he was defeated in the 1975 leadership contest by Thatcher who appointed him shadow chancellor. The chancellor was Denis Healey who claimed an attack from Howe was “like being savaged by a dead sheep”. Howe’s rejoinder was equally succinct: “Being nuzzled by Healey was like being mocked by an old boar”. In fact the two were close friends.

With the Tory victory in 1979 Howe became chancellor and he set about balancing the books and reducing inflation – the economy was in a dire state. He introduced adventurous new polices the abolition of exchange controls and the creation of tax-free enterprise zones.

An early source of disagreement with Thatcher was her deliberate decision to exclude Howe from the War Cabinet she had set up during the Falkland’s conflict. That undoubtedly niggled the chancellor.

After the 1983 general election he was moved to the Foreign Office but there was increasing tension between the two and some heated discussions in Number 10. At the Scottish Conservative Party Conference of 1987 in Perth Howe made his position on the EC crystal clear. Into his speech he added – it was not included in the published text – a sentence about the UK’s commitment to join the ERM. “We cannot go on adding the qualification to the underlying commitment.” The prime minister raised her eyebrows and their relationship turned sour and irreparable.

He spent his last years in the Commons as leader of the House and deputy prime minister – posts he reluctantly accepted. During these years he pleaded with Thatcher to become less abrasive.

Howe was knighted in 1970, made a life peer in 1992 and awarded the CH in 1996. He married Elspeth Shand in 1953 who survives him as do their son and two daughters.