Geoffrey Howe, the former Conservative MP who was Lady Thatcher’s longest-serving Cabinet minister died yesterday aged 88, just five months after retiring from the House of Lords.
As well as serving as Lady Thatcher’s first Chancellor for four years, Geoffrey Howe was later variously Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the Commons and a Deputy Prime Minister in her governments.
A Labour opponent, Denis Healey, once joked that being attacked by Howe was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”. However, it is for his famous resignation speech over the issue of Europe in 1990, a crucial moment precipitating events leading to Lady Thatcher’s downfall as Prime Minister, for which he will be best remembered.
The statement to the Commons was delivered shortly after his resignation as Deputy Prime Minister by which time he had become, in Lady Thatcher’s words, a “source of division and a focus of resentment”, a man of “bile and treachery”.
In it he used the now-famous cricket metaphor to describe Lady Thatcher’s attitude to British ministers negotiating for her government in Europe. Lord Howe 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.”
Leading the tributes, Prime Minister David Cameron described Lord Howe as a “kind, gentle and deeply thoughtful man – but at the same time he had huge courage and resolve.”
Labelling Lord Howe “the quiet hero of the first Thatcher government” and acknowledging the “vital” role he played in saving Britain when Labour lost power in 1979, Cameron continued:
“George Osborne and I benefited greatly from his wisdom and determination to improve the state of the country. The Conservative family has lost one of its greats. Our thoughts are with his family.”
Born in South Wales in 1926, Lord Howe of Aberavon (as he later became known) was educated in England at Winchester College. In 1944 he joined the army as a signals officer, serving in Kenya where he learned Swahili. He used the opportunity to lecture the locals on the perils of communism.
After leaving the army he went to Cambridge to read law and began to get involved with Conservative politics becoming a founder member of the Bow Group. Lord Howe first became an MP in 1964, losing his seat in 1966, then returning to the Commons in 1970 where he served until he retired from the Commons in 1992.
In his early years as an MP Lord Howe never gave up his legal career at the Bar, convinced as he was that MPs should have a solid career outside politics before entering Parliament: “Politics is much healthier if you have real people conducting it.”
From 1972 Lord Howe served as a minister of state at the Department of Trade and Industry in Ted Heath’s government. He ran for leadership of the party following Heath’s defeat in 1974, securing only 19 votes in the election which saw Lady Thatcher take the reins.
Lord Howe’s family say he died at home in Warwickshire from a suspected heart attack after attending a jazz concert with his wife Elspeth.