Westland: The wait goes on
The government has decided to fight the information commissioner's instruction to release the minutes of the controversial cabinet meeting in 1986 which was disrupted by Michael Heseltine suddenly walking out and resigning from Margaret Thatcher's administration.
As I reported a month ago, the commissioner backed my freedom of information request for these minutes on the basis that releasing them would help remove uncertainties over historical events. But the Cabinet Office has now appealed against this judgement to the Information Rights Tribunal, which will hear the case in the next few months.
I made my initial FOI application for these records in February 2005, nearly five years ago, when the material was 19 years old. The Cabinet Office dismissed it after five months. The Information Commissioner's Office then spent over four years considering the matter before deciding to uphold my request, which thus now relates to information that is 24 years old.
The Cabinet Office has told me that it is appealing because it believes the minutes should be exempt from FOI and that it stands by its original refusal.
Lord Heseltine's dramatic resignation as defence secretary stemmed from a bitter dispute with Lady Thatcher over the future of the struggling Westland helicopter company. The Westland Affair is a fascinating and very significant episode in the politics of the 1980s - but I'm also interested in it because it poses intriguing questions about the accuracy of ministerial memoirs.
Michael Heseltine's departure from the cabinet is the subject of several eye-witness accounts from memoirists, providing us with a rare opportunity to compare numerous politicians' versions of a private event of such importance. It turns out that these contain a range of errors and discrepancies. The official minutes, if and when released, may or may not shed some light on these matters. Not having read them, I don't know. But meanwhile here is my guide to some of the conflicting reports we have at the moment.
The former cabinet ministers who have described the incident in their memoirs include (as well as Lord Heseltine and Lady Thatcher themselves) Geoffrey Howe, Nicholas Ridley, Kenneth Baker, Nigel Lawson, David Young and Norman Fowler.
The argument in the meeting focused on whether all ministerial public statements or responses to press enquiries on Westland should be cleared in advance by the Cabinet Office, a requirement that Lord Heseltine was unwilling to concede for confirming previous pronouncements already made.
Did anybody else support Michael Heseltine?
"'Surely,' I said, 'we can at least be trusted, without further checking, to confirm statements already made?'" (Howe)
"One or two colleagues, including Peter Walker, tried to find a way through." (Heseltine)
"We all agreed, except Michael Heseltine, both with the policy and with the requirement to clear anything we were minded to say, through the Cabinet Office." (Ridley)
"No one sided with Michael. He was quite isolated." (Thatcher)
Who uttered the words that triggered his walkout?
"I pressed him a third time. Twice he refused to agree. At the third time of asking, he closed his cabinet folder... and stormed out." (Ridley)
"I emphasised the importance of observing collective responsibility in this and all matters. At this Michael Heseltine erupted." (Thatcher)
How did he close his folder before departing?
"with dignity" (Baker)
What were his exact final words before he departed?
"Prime Minister, if this is how it is to be I can no longer serve in your cabinet." (Young)
"If this is the way this government is going to be conducted, I no longer wish to be part of it." (Lawson)
"I cannot accept this decision. I must therefore leave this cabinet." (Ridley)
"There has been a breakdown of collective responsibility and I must therefore leave the cabinet." (Baker)
What happened afterwards?
"After an embarrassed silence we carried on with the next item on the agenda as best we could" (Young)
"In the stunned silence that followed Margaret announced that there would be a short break for coffee" (Lawson)