Wales

A Very Welsh Coup: Thatcher's Downfall 25 years ago

Geoffrey Howe, Magaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine

In the dying days of November, exactly 25 years ago, the extraordinary era of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister came to an abrupt end, in a coup triggered by her party's two most prominent Welsh politicians.

A political colossus who had won three elections and never been defeated was dumped by her own Conservative Party, forced out of office at the height of her powers in the biggest, most dramatic British political story since the war.

Geoffrey Howe from Port Talbot and Michael Heseltine from Swansea were the principal assassins.

Both were Tory "big beasts" who forged their reputation on the British stage, but often harked back to their roots in industrial south Wales.

Some of the wounds of that extraordinary public power struggle - so divisive for the Tory Party - may have healed in 25 years but, for many, the scars remain.

Many loyal Thatcherites still regard her fate as an act of betrayal.

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Image caption Margaret Thatcher sheds a tear as she is driven away from 10 Downing Street following her resignation

So what went wrong? And how was it that Port Talbot and Swansea should prove the breeding ground for the Tory twosome who would bring her down in what truly was A Very Welsh Coup ?

I've spoken to a number of key actors in those dramatic events for a BBC Radio Wales programme this weekend, and also to journalists who worked with me on covering what was easily the biggest British political story of my 30-year career reporting Westminster.

Click here to listen to A Very Welsh Coup on BBC Radio Wales

Michael Heseltine tells me he does not regret his part in those tumultuous events a quarter of a century ago and will not apologise for ousting, with Geoffrey Howe, the longest-serving prime minister of the 20th Century.

There is no hesitation in his answer when I put to him the charge levelled by many still loyal to Lady Thatcher and who cannot forgive: that he was guilty of betrayal and treachery against her and the Conservative Party.

"I don't find any great difficulty with that argument. History is full of people who believed that their own integrity was the real standard by which they should be judged and they have often been proved right", he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Michael Heseltine has no regrets about his role in ending Margaret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister

Mrs Thatcher had dominated politics in the 1980s, with the help of a divided opposition after the Labour-SDP split.

She had driven Argentina out of the Falklands; humbled the miners; toughened trade union laws; and sold off state industries and council houses.

Yet by 1990, she was suddenly vulnerable as never before…. unpopular, disliked, and considered isolated and out of touch.

After her "unassailable" Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, resigned a year earlier, she had easily seen off a leadership challenge by a "stalking horse" candidate, the mild-mannered but steely Clwyd Tory MP, Sir Anthony Meyer.

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Image caption Margaret Thatcher became of the most prominent political figures of the 1980s

But 60 of her MPs failed to back her... And the party's deputy chief whip or party manager at the time, Tristan now Lord Garel-Jones said he warned Mrs Thatcher many more Tory backbenchers were "wobbly".

Garel-Jones, who is from Llangennech, Carmarthenshire, told her she must soften her anti-European rhetoric and act to reduce the huge damage being caused to her MPs' chances of re-election by her disastrous flagship policy.

This was the widely-despised community charge or poll tax, with the same sum paid by everyone - no matter how rich or poor - to fund local council services.

Lurking assassins

Otherwise, he recalls warning Mrs Thatcher, in graphic terms: "There are a hundred assassins lurking in the bushes and in a year's time they are going to come out and kill you!"

The Prime Minister would not listen, and Garel-Jones was proved right.

Provoked by his Cabinet demotion, Mrs Thatcher's increasingly strident anti-European rhetoric ("No! No! No!" just about summed it up), and her embarrassing bullying of him in cabinet, Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned in November 1990.

His resignation statement in the Commons stunned all who watched it by its venom and its demolition of Mrs Thatcher's European policy, which Howe called "a nightmare image… of a continent teeming with ill-intentioned people scheming to extinguish democracy".

Image caption Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech stunned MPs in the House of Commons and was described as an act of sheer revenge

But it is the very British imagery of those cricket bats that people remember most:

"It's rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain."

I was in the Commons press gallery watching that speech and it was 20 minutes I'll never forget.

Others who witnessed it describe it variously in the programme as a Shakespearian tragedy, an act of madness that stunned MPs, a rush of blood, sheer revenge, a sensation, and - most memorably - by the victim herself, as full of "bile and treachery".

'Act of treachery'

Among the journalists packed into the press gallery with me that afternoon was Welsh journalist David Hughes, then chief political correspondent for the Sunday Times.

He recalled: "He didn't shriek. It wasn't in any way histrionic but the content was tailor-made to finish Thatcher off."

Thatcher ally Brian Griffiths, from Fforestfach in Swansea, ran the No 10 policy unit, and had known Geoffrey Howe for years, even writing speeches for him... but not this one.

"Such an act of treachery… he just put the knife into her completely. What Geoffrey did was inexcusable."

Another Welshman watching the speech, Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party, said he admired Geoffrey Howe hugely for his honesty and courage, claiming Mrs T had come to patronise her old friend:

"He wasn't the mouse that Mrs T had thought he'd become, but was still a lion capable of roaring."

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Image caption Then Labour leader Neil Kinnock said he admired Geoffrey Howe for his courageous resignation

Geoffrey Howe's howitzer left Michael Heseltine no real option but to challenge Mrs Thatcher for the leadership... something he told me he had never intended to do, since he walked out of the Cabinet nearly five years earlier.

He admitted he feared that challenging his old adversary would have made him too divisive a figure in the party. He got that right!

And looking back on his relationship with Mrs Thatcher before he quit the cabinet, Lord Heseltine made what many will find an extraordinary claim:

"I know from authoritative comments from friends that she had a high regard for me.

"Indeed, I'm told she thought I would be her successor. Now where that went wrong was over her extraordinary obsessions with Europe."

Epic hypocrisy

Another BBC colleague covering the leadership campaign Howe's speech triggered was Huw Edwards, now of the News at Ten:

"There were epic levels of hypocrisy involved. Lots of the people I interviewed were incredibly strong in favour of Mrs Thatcher publicly, but once you switched the microphone off they were viciously critical and begging her to leave."

Mrs Thatcher's leadership campaign was utterly shambolic.

She even went abroad to a conference in Paris on the day of the first ballot, despite being begged by Tory Party chairman, Newport-born Kenneth Baker, to stay and lobby wavering MPs for support.

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Image caption A tired Margaret Thatcher yawns at a conference in Paris, despite Kenneth Baker begging her to remain in the UK

She won the vote, but not by enough: there would have to be a second ballot and Mrs T immediately announced she would stand.

Her cabinet had other ideas. Accusations of a plot against her still swirl around today... based not least on a meeting of some senior ministers at the Westminster home of Tristan Garel Jones after that indecisive vote.

He insisted to me that they spent little time on Mrs Thatcher's fate, since even her most loyal supporters were already saying she would lose if she stood against Michael Heseltine a second time.

More and more Tory MPs were now putting saving their own seats first, willing to ditch an unpopular, unbending leader who had stayed too long, and back her charismatic Welsh rival who promised to ditch the hated poll tax.

Time to go

But the message from most cabinet ministers, delivered one by one, that if she stood she would let Michael Heseltine in, shook Mrs Thatcher's confidence. It was reinforced by the advice from her husband, Denis.

As he told family friend and head of the Downing Street policy unit, Brian, now Lord Griffiths: "I told her she should go... it's time."

And, for once, Margaret Thatcher took the advice.

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Image caption Margaret Thatcher, with her husband Denis behind her, addresses the press before resigning as prime minister

Two men realised immediately what that meant for their own ambitions: for Michael Heseltine: "I knew at that time I would not win the next round... I had become very divisive in the Conservative Party, quite understandably."

And it was a heavy blow too for the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock... then riding high in the polls: "The day that Margaret Thatcher resigned, Labour's best asset went through the door."

Douglas Hurd and the little-known John Major - Thatcher's latest chosen heir-apparent - entered the race.

In just five days, the chancellor went from outsider to favourite, as MPs voted for unity.

I was in Downing Street as he heard he had been elected the new party leader and prime minister on 27 November, with Mrs Thatcher making a tearful final exit the next day.

And what, if any, was the long-term effect on the Conservative Party of dumping - so ruthlessly - a sitting prime minister with a 100-plus majority, and who had never lost an election?

The Tory Party chairman at the time, Welshman Kenneth Baker, is in no doubt:

"There was chaos in the Conservative Party for nearly 20 years"

Welsh temperament

So did the Welsh roots of Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine play any part in those momentous events of 25 years ago?

Lord Heseltine, now 82 and back in government as a part-time adviser to the prime minister, thinks they certainly influenced his whole political creed:

"The contrast that is all around you in Swansea, from really very poor circumstances to quite prosperous areas indelibly impressed me on the need for one nation policies."

And Brian, now Lord Griffiths, thinks those Welsh roots may explain Geoffrey Howe's extraordinary revenge:

"There is something in a Welsh temperament… you try to get on with people, but there will be a point when the worm turned and I think, with Geoffrey, the worm turned."

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