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 can at least be trusted, without further checking, to confirm statements already made?'” This intervention is not recalled by Thatcher, who states: “No one sided with Michael. He was quite isolated.” Nor was it remembered by Ridley, her ideological ally: “We all agreed, except Michael Heseltine, both with the policy and with the requirement to clear anything we were minded to say, through the cabinet office.”
What then was the immediate cause of Heseltine’s walkout? Ridley claims that the trigger was his repeated challenge to the defence secretary to conform: “I pressed him a third time. Twice he refused to agree. At the third time of asking, he closed his folder and… stormed out.” But other accounts say the final straw was the prime minister’s summing up. These include those of Walker, Baker, and Thatcher herself: “I emphasised the importance of observing collective responsibility in this and all matters. At this Michael Heseltine erupted.”
Before departing Heseltine closed his cabinet folder, “quietly” (according to Fowler), “with dignity” (Baker) or “briskly” (Howe). Lawson, however, records that he “slammed his cabinet folder shut.”
Political memoirs often contain verbatim accounts of conversations. Authors prefer to express their memories in directly reported speech as a more dramatic form than indirect speech, even though this degree of word-for-word recall has always seemed implausible. In this case several ministers attempt to reproduce Heseltine’s exact departing words.
‘”Prime Minister, if this is how it is to be I can no longer serve in your cabinet”‘ (Young); ‘”If this is the way this government is going to be conducted, I no longer wish to be part of it”‘ (Lawson); ‘”I cannot accept this decision. I must therefore leave this cabinet”‘ (Ridley); ‘”There has been a breakdown of collective responsibility and I must therefore leave the cabinet”‘ (Baker).
Finally, did either of the two main protagonists seek deliberately to bring about the outcome of the meeting? Howe maintains a sensible measure of uncertainty: “I still don’t know whether Margaret or he had actually planned for this shock. But I don’t think either of them was totally unprepared for it.” Others are more convinced. Walker absolves both of them without reservation: “I am absolutely certain that at the beginning of the meeting, Michael had no intention of resigning. Equally, I am certain Margaret had no intention of forcing him to quit.” Ridley blames Heseltine: “I believe that Michael Heseltine was determined upon resignation.” Lawson blames Thatcher: “She now set out to humiliate Michael, knowing this would… lead to his resignation.”
There is however one reassuring thought which is prompted by this analysis of inconsistency and error in political memoirs. At least politicians do not ensure consistency by cribbing material out of the books of former colleagues. It may be unreliable, but it’s their own work.