It is ten years since Michael Heseltine stormed out of the cabinet over Westland. Martin Rosenbaum compares eye-witness accountsby Martin Rosenbaum / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
According to his memoirs, Nigel Lawson regarded cabinet meetings as the most relaxing events in his busy life as chancellor of the exchequer. At one such meeting almost exactly ten years ago, his repose was abruptly disturbed by what he described as “the most dramatic moment in any cabinet I have attended.”
Most of his colleagues were equally startled. According to Nicholas Ridley it was “one of the most extraordinary events I have ever witnessed.” The cabinet was “staggered,” recalls Peter Walker; “stunned,” says Kenneth Baker; and “shell-shocked,” in the words of Sir Norman Fowler. Only Margaret Thatcher claims that she was not surprised.
The cause was one of the most famous incidents in modern British political history-Michael Heseltine’s resignation as defence secretary in January 1986. This stemmed from his conflict with Thatcher and Leon Brittan, then trade and industry secretary, over the fate of the struggling helicopter company, Westland. Heseltine was opposed to a rescue deal from the American firm Sikorsky; he wanted to involve a European consortium instead. The cabinet split became increasingly open until the meeting in question, when Thatcher’s attempt to restrain Heseltine’s public statements on the issue led him to walk out.
The episode was so astounding that most eye-witnesses who have since written autobiographies have felt compelled to record what happened. No other single occasion is described so frequently in the extensive corpus of recent Conservative memoirs. It therefore provides a unique opportunity to test different versions against each other.
Eight memoir writers have so far recounted the episode-Lady Thatcher, Lords Howe, Lawson, Ridley, Walker and Young, Sir Norman Fowler and Kenneth Baker. Lords Whitelaw and Tebbit were also present, but their books contain no details of the incident.
The late Nicholas Ridley wrote: “I have a clear memory of the first cabinet in 1986 after the Christmas recess, on January 16th. The Westland issue came up early.” In fact, the meeting took place on January 9th.
As for the content of the discussion, it is clear that Thatcher insisted that public pronouncements by ministers about Westland should first be cleared by the cabinet office, and that Heseltine refused to accept this.
But did anybody else support Heseltine? Geoffrey Howe claims he backed him up, at least to the extent of urging that it should be possible to confirm earlier statements without clearance from the cabinet office. Howe writes: ‘”Surely,” I said, “we…