The story behind The Crown: Thatcher leaves No.10 after Commons ‘savaging’ by Geoffrey Howe sparks leadership contest

The final episode of season 4 of The Crown sees Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher step down after a very public attack by one of her most loyal ministers. What really happened?

By Rhys Lewis Published: 15 November 2020 - 4.06pm
Richard Baker/Getty

Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year reign as Prime Minister came to a dramatic end in November 1990 when one of her most loyal ministers, Geoffrey Howe, turned on her in a stinging resignation speech in a packed House of Commons.

As the final episode of season 4 of The Crown shows, the speech triggered a chain of events that would swiftly lead to the downfall of the Prime Minister herself.

The mild-mannered Howe, played by Paul Jesson in the Netflix drama, was Thatcher’s longest-serving Cabinet minister – a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister.

Willie Whitelaw (Don Gallagher), Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Geoffrey Howe (Paul Jesson) in The Crown Netflix
Willie Whitelaw (Don Gallagher), Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Geoffrey Howe (Paul Jesson) in The Crown

There had been tensions between Howe and the Prime Minister since 1982, when Thatcher refused to appoint him to her Falklands war cabinet. And when he threatened to resign in 1989, over the issue of Britain’s entry to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Howe was removed from the Foreign Office and made Lord President of the Council – effectively a demotion.

The final straw in Howe’s relations with Thatcher came in late 1990, when the eurosceptic Prime Minister famously said “No, no, no!” to European Commission President Jacques Delors’ push for closer political and economic union in Europe.

Since her 1987 election victory, Mrs Thatcher had lost a lot of support among the electorate. The Conservative Party was 14 points behind Labour in the polls and the Prime Minister had misjudged the mood of the nation with regards to the introduction of a new rates system, the Community Charge or Poll Tax, which had sparked riots in central London in April 1990. But until now, MPs and cabinet colleagues had remained firmly behind her.

Howe resigned on November 1, penning a letter which criticised Thatcher’s handling of British relations in Europe. “I am deeply anxious that the mood you have struck – most notably in Rome last weekend and in the House of Commons this Tuesday – will make it more difficult for Britain to hold and retain a position of influence in this vital debate,” he wrote.

Howe’s stinging resignation speech

The normally placid Howe was not going to go quietly, either. His resignation speech – delivered 12 days later to a packed House of Commons and recreated in The Crown – took everyone by surprise, being uncharacteristically dramatic for a man whose attacks former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey had likened to “being savaged by a dead sheep”.

Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe at the 1980 Conservative Party Conference Getty
Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe at the 1980 Conservative Party Conference

Delivering his speech after Prime Minister’s Questions, Howe told the House that Thatcher’s “perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation” and that he had tendered his resignation “with the utmost sadness and dismay.”

Howe famously used a cricketing analogy to explain how attempting to negotiate with Europe was made impossible by Mrs Thatcher’s openly disruptive attitude.

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain,” he explained.

His final words are now regarded as a starting gun for the leadership contest that would oust Thatcher in less than a fortnight.

“I have done what I believe to be right, for my party and my country,” he concluded. “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.”

Howe later denied that this was the case. “I didn’t feel that I was going to bring her [Thatcher] down or anything like that, it wasn’t designed to achieve that. I felt I couldn’t go on wearing two hats,” he said.

However Kenneth Baker, Conservative Party Chairman at the time, said some years later that Howe “knew what he was doing. He was, in fact, preparing the assassination of Margaret Thatcher”.

Either way, as political magazine Total Politics later recalled: “By the time Howe sat down, everyone there felt they had just witnessed a political earthquake, and Tories knew that the PM's position was undermined, possibly fatally.”

The leadership contest

A few days after Howe’s speech, Michael Heseltine, below, launched his leadership challenge against Margaret Thatcher. The rules of the contest specified that the winner had to have a lead of 15% of the 372 sitting Conservative MPs - 56 votes - in order to avoid a second ballot.

Michael Heseltine during the Conservative Leadership Campaign in 1990 Getty
Michael Heseltine during the Conservative Leadership Campaign in 1990

Polling 204 votes to Heseltine’s 152, with 16 abstentions, Thatcher fell just four votes short of outright victory. The Prime Minister, visiting Paris for a summit, appeared on the steps of the British Embassy and declared her intention to let her name go forward for the second ballot.

On arriving back in London the following morning she declared: "I fight on; I fight to win", but after over the next 24 hours, cabinet ministers privately told her the same story: although they would support her in the second ballot, they all thought that she would lose.

Mrs Thatcher resigns

On November 22, Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister after 11 and a half years in office. After meeting the Queen and making one final Commons speech, Mrs Thatcher left office, saying "We're happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came here”.

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown Netflix
Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown

Her Chancellor John Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd would go on to face Michael Heseltine in the second ballot, Major – Thatcher’s preferred successor - eventually winning the contest.

Two weeks after her resignation, Mrs Thatcher was appointed to the Order of Merit, one of the Commonwealth’s highest honours and considered a personal gift of the monarch themselves. As the Queen explains in The Crown, at any one time there are no more than 24 living members of the order, who have all been rewarded for distinguished service in their field. 

Mrs Thatcher remained on the backbenches as MP for Finchley until the 1992 General Election, after which she was given a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. In February 2007 she became the first living British Prime Minister to be honoured with a statue in the Houses of Parliament.

Although her daughter Carol revealed in 2005 that her mother was suffering from dementia, Baroness Thatcher remained active in the House of Lords until 2010.

She died aged 87 in April 2013 at a suite at the Ritz Hotel in London. The Queen attended her funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, the first time she had attended the funeral of a former Prime Minister since that of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.

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