Obituary: Geoffrey Howe


Geoffrey Howe was one of the longest-serving Conservative cabinet members of modern times.

He was at the Foreign Office for the second longest period of the 20th Century, and was a reforming and innovative chancellor.

Possessed of an owlish gaze and courteous manner, he was seen as an effective, if somewhat plodding member of the Thatcher administration.

It was therefore, something of an irony, that it was his measured tones that precipitated the downfall of one of the highest-profile prime ministers in British history.

Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe was born in Port Talbot, South Wales on 20 December 1926. His father was a solicitor who was also the local coroner.

It was an area which had been dominated by Labour since Ramsay MacDonald won the parliamentary seat.

His grandfather had been a staunch trade unionist and Howe later recalled the long queues at local employment exchanges while he was growing up.

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image captionHowe (r) listens to Harold Macmillan addressing a Bow Group meeting in 1957

He remained a proud Welshman and later regretted not having learned to speak the language.

He left Winchester College in 1944 and joined the Army, serving as a signals officer in Kenya where he learned Swahili and lectured the locals on the perils of communism.

He turned down the opportunity to remain in the Army, instead going to Cambridge where he read law and dabbled in Conservative politics.

"Not because of strong political commitment," he later recalled, "but because of an interest in taking part in politics."

He became a founding member of the Bow Group, an independent think tank that promotes Conservative ideas.


He was called to the Bar in 1952 but politics still beckoned. He contested his home seat of Aberavon in 1955 and 1959, in both cases failing to unseat the Labour incumbent.

The following year he married Elspeth Shand who later carved out her own successful career in public life.

In 1958, he co-authored a report, entitled A Giant's Strength, which argued that the trade unions were far too influential and that their power should be curtailed.

image captionHe gained a reputation as a reforming chancellor

It was useful research for the battles with the unions that would ensue after Margaret Thatcher's election.

Howe entered Parliament in 1964, as the member for the marginal constituency of Bebington, on the Wirral, but lost the seat two years later following boundary changes.

He never gave up his legal work during this period and remained convinced that MPs should have a sound career outside politics before entering Parliament.

"Politics is much healthier if you have real people conducting it."


Howe won the safe Conservative seat of Reigate in 1970 as the party returned to power under Edward Heath.

He was knighted the same year and Heath appointed him solicitor general. He was responsible for helping to draft the Industrial Relations Act and European Communities Act.

In 1972, Howe became minister of state at the Department of Trade and Industry, with a seat in the cabinet.

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image captionHowe (4th l front row) was Margaret Thatcher's longest-serving cabinet minister

During this period, he introduced a number of bills to improve consumer protection and set up the Office of Fair Trading.

In February 1974 Howe won the seat of East Surrey. But Heath's government was defeated and Howe found himself in opposition.

He surprised many when he entered the race to replace Heath in the 1975 Conservative leadership election.

He got a mere 19 votes, but he had set out his stall. When Margaret Thatcher gained power in 1979, Howe was appointed chancellor of the exchequer.


He proved his reforming credentials by cutting income tax while doubling VAT. He strove to reduce inflation, but at the cost of sharply rising unemployment.

He rejected the idea that he was wed to some kind of monetarist dogma.

"The wellbeing of the British people, and the health of our economy, are far more important than any government's commitment to a particular strategy."

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image captionHowe (C) paved the way for the 1984 agreement on the handover of Hong Kong to China

Moving to the Foreign Office in 1983, he upset the opposition by banning trade union membership at GCHQ in Cheltenham.

There was wide acclaim for his successful negotiations for the handover of Hong Kong to China, which would finally take place in 1997.

But after the killings in Tiananmen Square, he met hostility from Hong Kong residents when he refused them general rights of entry to Britain.

Howe wanted Britain to enter the European exchange rate mechanism five years before Mrs Thatcher finally agreed to it.


Only after he jointly threatened resignation with the Chancellor Nigel Lawson, did she consent to conditions for entry.

These differences almost certainly led to his unexpected removal from the Foreign Office in the summer of 1989 - some thought he should have resigned there and then.

But after a brief resistance, when he turned down the Home Office, he accepted the role of leader of the House and deputy prime minister.

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image captionThe 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement helped pave the way for the Good Friday Agreement

He was responsible for making the televising of the Commons permanent, following an earlier trial run.

But his power was diminished, and his relations with the prime minister became cool due to their fundamental disagreement over the EU.

After representing Britain so often alongside her, he could not share what he called her "nightmare vision" of "a continent teeming with ill-intentioned scheming people".

And he came to believe that her beating of the nationalist drum was dangerous.


For her part, Mrs Thatcher accused Howe of "bile and treachery", and said he had become both "a source of division and a focus of resentment".

Howe finally broke ranks after the prime minister had declared at a European Council meeting that Britain would never join the euro.

She followed it up with a somewhat intemperate speech in which she attacked proposals that the European Parliament should become the democratic body of the community, the Commission the executive, and the Council of Ministers the senate.

media captionWatch extracts of Geoffrey Howe's 1990 resignation speech, widely considered pivotal in Margaret Thatcher's downfall

"No. No. No," she famously told the Commons on 30 October 1990.

Howe not only resigned, giving up his posts as leader of the Commons and deputy prime minister, but made such a devastating speech of resignation in the Commons that the prime minister never recovered.

Using a cricket metaphor to describe Mrs Thatcher's attitude to British negotiations in Europe, he said: "It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only to find ... that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain."

The speech encouraged Michael Heseltine to challenge Mrs Thatcher's leadership. Within weeks she left No 10.

Treasure trove

Howe later claimed that he had not foreseen the consequences of his speech. At the next election he went to the Lords as Lord Howe of Aberavon.

He remained prominent in British politics and took a high-profile role in the battle against Tony Blair's attempts to diminish the power of the House of Lords.

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image captionHe was a passionate opponent of an elected Lords

"It's a treasure trove of speciality knowledge on almost everything," he said in an interview with Varsity magazine.

Lord Howe was a hard worker, a patient negotiator and a persistent advocate for the things in which he believed.

He was seen as radical on monetarist and union matters, but as a dove and something of a philosopher on social questions.

Denis Healey once joked that being attacked by Howe was like being "savaged by a dead sheep".

It was typical of the man that, away from the bear-pit of the Commons, Howe counted Healey among his closest friends and the two men and their wives often stayed with each other.

Geoffrey Howe proved himself to be a consummate politician, and a reforming chancellor.

Yet in the end, he will probably be best remembered for the part he played, albeit reluctantly, in the toppling of Margaret Thatcher.

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