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Westland cabinet minutes released

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Martin Rosenbaum | 12:01 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The government has for the first time been forced to release the minutes [92KB PDF] of a cabinet meeting in response to a freedom of information request.

Michael Heseltine walking out of 10 Downing Street

 

These are the minutes of the controversial meeting in January 1986 in which Michael Heseltine suddenly resigned as defence secretary during discussion of the future of the struggling Westland helicopter company. He walked out in protest at how Margaret Thatcher insisted on controlling ministerial statements on the issue.

His dramatic resignation followed an increasingly tense and open cabinet split between Mr Heseltine and Mrs Thatcher. He objected to a proposed rescue deal for Westland from the American firm Sikorsky, backing a European consortium instead.

Mrs Thatcher instructed at that cabinet meeting that all public pronouncements by ministers on the Westland crisis would first have to be cleared by the Cabinet Office. Mr Heseltine argued that this should not apply to simply confirming previous statements already made and stunned the cabinet by leaving when the prime minister would not back down on this.

The official minutes set out in detail the cabinet clash between the two of them as they argued their case in front of their colleagues. This gives much more detail than the several accounts of the meeting already published in ministerial memoirs.

Mrs Thatcher made clear how she felt about the extensive publicity for government disunity in previous weeks:

"Comment and headlines in the newspapers, including those normally favourable to the Government, had been extremely damaging. The Government had entered the New Year in a way very harmful to the reputation of the Cabinet and to the public esteem in which the Government was held, just at the time when there were signs of a recovery in the Government's political fortunes."

The mood of the meeting is summed up as follows:

"There was general agreement that the time had now come to put aside what had happened, to leave it to the company to conduct negotiations with the two consortia and to reach their decisions, and for the Government to disengage from the issue. It would be important to demonstrate a determination to re-establish the credibility and coherence of the Cabinet."

Michael Heseltine maintained his position:

"He did not believe that it could be constitutionally right for a departmental Minister to be obliged to clear interdepartmentally through the Cabinet Office replies on matters which fell within his Ministerial responsibility. He was prepared to clear collectively any new statements which he might be called upon to make, but he must be able to confirm without the delay implicit in the requirement to consult any statement already made."

And so did Margaret Thatcher when she began to sum up:

"The Cabinet also agreed that, in the interest of ensuring adherence to that decision and of restoring and maintaining collective responsibility of the Government, during the particularly sensitive period of commercial negotiations and decisions which lay ahead of all statements or replies by members of the Government in relation to Westland, including replies which confirmed statements already made, should be cleared with the Departments concerned through the Cabinet Office."

These minutes contain no evidence that any other minister backed Mr Heseltine, despite the fact that the Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe maintains in his memoirs that he did so. The official record fits with Mrs Thatcher's statement that "no one sided with Michael. He was quite isolated."

The minutes also seem to conflict with the description of the incident given by Nicholas Ridley, then transport secretary, in his memoirs. He claims that he prompted the walk-out by repeatedly pressing Mr Heseltine, but the minutes indicate that it was Mrs Thatcher's summing up which did so.

As for the actual point of resignation, the official record simply states: "The Secretary of State withdrew from the meeting at that point." It then adds:

"The Cabinet - 1. Took note, with approval, of the Prime Minister's summing up of the discussion.
 
...
 
5. Took note, with extreme regret, of the decision by the Secretary of State for Defence to leave the Cabinet."

The minutes have been released to me this morning by the Cabinet Office following a freedom of information request I made over five years ago in February 2005. Most of the extraordinary delay since then was caused by the Information Commissioner's Office taking over four years to consider the case.

The government fought disclosure of the material on the basis that revealing cabinet minutes and internal disagreements would damage the convention of collective cabinet responsibility. This stance was overruled by the Information Commissioner last year [72KB PDF].

The Cabinet Office then appealed to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights), which also rejected its arguments [156KB PDF] and ordered release of the information. The commissioner and the tribunal were both strongly influenced by the fact that numerous cabinet ministers had already breached collective responsibility themselves by describing the event in their memoirs.

This is only the second case to reach the tribunal which concerned an FOI request for cabinet minutes. The first case in 2008 involved records of cabinet meetings prior to the Iraq war. The tribunal ruled that these should be published but this was blocked by the then Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who used the ministerial right of veto for the first time.

Although Parliament has passed a law which would reduce the standard 30-year rule for the public release of most cabinet papers to 20 years, ministers have not yet brought this into force. The change in the law followed last year's Dacre review of the 30-year rule.

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