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Release of MT's private files for 1986 - (2) Westland, a near death experience

Michael Heseltine's resignation hugely damaged MT. The weeks that followed resemble the political equivalent of a near death experience, MT seeming strangely passive, somehow unable to fight back, acting (or rather not acting) out of character.

10-27 JAN: SURVIVAL

27 Jan 1986: MT's "olive branch" to Heseltine

Did MT intend or expect that Heseltine would resign when he did? Nothing in the papers throws light, but almost certainly neither. Having said her piece in cabinet, she immediately returned to a defensive crouch. She probably judged, correctly, that his resignation had left her weaker. The truth is surely that she was deeply conflicted, angry as anything but painfully aware of her vulnerability. Her Political Secretary, Stephen Sherbourne, warned her the day after the resignation (10 Jan) that the thing to fear was seeming not to be in control. “People want Prime Ministers to be in charge and they expect that of you”. A separate note from Sherbourne to Powell and others the same day shows him urging aggressive tactics against Heseltine.

Sherbourne's arguments did not prevail. She had become deeply risk averse. Trade & Industry Secretary Leon Brittan was almost immediately in serious difficulties, with few friends in the press as Ingham warned her in his daily press digest (14 Jan). She made the decision that her own big Commons statement on Westland, 15 Jan, should be couched ‘low-key’, a recitation of facts which deprived of her strong suits of energy and combativeness. Whatever else, it did not demonstrate control. We release drafts (estimated date 14 Jan) which show her cutting almost anything that might have resembled an attack on Michael Heseltine. The draft ended with a feeble half-punch: “I fear my RHF [Right Honourable Friend] may be a rebel without a cause”, and even that was cut in the final version. Predictably, the speech flopped.

MT’s private correspondence at this time shows her at her least convincing, a kind of pleading to change the subject. She told one friend: “It has all been so unnecessary. The Tory party isnt expected to behave like that”. She talked about having had a “difficult week”. It was all happening “just when the economy is doing well” (letter to Lady Tilney, 17 Jan). She even claimed, implausibly, to find consolation in the fact that the appointment of George Younger to succeed Heseltine had brought in a new Scottish Secretary: “an excellent new face in Malcolm Rifkind” (letter to Lady Spencer, 17 Jan).

When on 22 Jan the Young Conservatives suddenly invited Heseltine to speak at their conference in February, timing his appearance to create maximum embarrassment, MT was advised to force them cancel the invitation. She declined: “I think it is risky to do so”.

Her final statements on Westland, 23 and 27 Jan 1986, find her still refusing to take the kind of aggressive stance many expected of her, her Policy Unit among them (24 Jan). Again she seems to have felt she had little choice. Her position was not helped by the fact that Leon Brittan, who resigned on 24 Jan, made clear that he would if necessary give his side of the story, Ingham reporting at length remarks by “close friends of Mr Brittan” in his press digest on 26 Jan, some of them aimed at him personally.

The final speech, on Monday 27 Jan, her third major Commons performance on the topic, was taken away from her and more or less finalised in committee, an unheard-of thing for a Prime Minister who crawled over every comma. Among the material added at this stage was a section expressing outright contrition, which she labelled on the copy she took to the Commons for delivery: “olive branch”. By arrangement, in his speech Heseltine responded magnanimously, famously the prerogative of the winning side.

28 JAN ONWARDS: AFTERMATH

MT's 27 Jan speech is now seen as ending the crisis, but it was not entirely clear that it would at the time. Polling suggested that the majority of voters did not believe her answers or that her speech would bring it to a close (Sherbourne minute, 29 Jan). There was a further phase in which it seemed possible officials involved in the leak of the Solicitor-General’s letter would be dragged before a Commons Select Committee, potentially a fatal event from MT’s point of view. This demand was strongly and successfully resisted by the Cabinet Secretary, who testified himself. MT wrote him a letter of thanks after his appearance, which we do not have in her files, but his warm reply of 5 Feb reflecting on his testimony is revealing.

I devoutly hope that it will have helped to take the heat out of the affair, and off you. It’s unbelievable that so relatively trivial a business should distract you – and so many others – from the serious business that is there to be done. And the officials concerned – particularly Charles and Bernard, and Colette Bowe – have had a very disagreeable time: they have earned some relief.

Michael Heseltine had begun by arguing a case for a “European solution” to Westland’s problems, but increasingly moved to what one might call constitutional ground. It worked well for him in one way, because with the leaking of the Solicitor-General’s letter flaws of process supplied him a potentially war-winning weapon. But equally, his tactics ranged the official machine strongly against him, a large downside, and correspondingly an asset for MT. It was no part of Cabinet Secretary’s purpose to rescue the Prime Minister – surely he would have refused to set aside precedent to allow middle-ranking officials to testify in such circumstances, whatever the underlying view of Westland or of her – but his intervention nevertheless helped her survive and plainly he was not sorry for that fact.

Other officials privately expressed relief and thanks to her, none more so than Charles Powell who wrote her with special warmth (27 Jan) and offered “to slip away” if she concluded she would be “better served by a less notorious Private Secretary”. Of course, she did not. Among those helping were ex-No.10 people who had moved back to their home departments, most notably Robin Butler at the Treasury. She wrote to him on 29 Jan: “It seems as if we have lived through a nightmare – one which should never have happened”. “It will be a relief to get back to ‘normal’ problems”. No.10 experienced something of an atmosphere of siege during the Westland affair and it is no surprise that staff past and present showed a tendency to rally emotionally to the boss who defended their corner so firmly. The office manager, Peter Taylor, wrote MT on 7 Feb: “Prime Minister. When the deeds of the unworthy and the ungodly hurt the most. / Remember the love and affection of those who care. Peter”.

Her political colleagues were much less friendly. Reporting his briefing of the weekend lobby on Friday 31 January, which noted the press moving on a little - paying little heed to a well-informed piece in The Economist giving the DTI perspective on it all - Ingham went on:

More generally, I get the feeling that there is a great deal of gossip going on in the party and that Cabinet Ministers are participants. They are described as extremely worried about the next election and in need of rallying; but there is no automatic successor to you in mind.

A sign of her problem with political colleagues came barely a week after the 27 Jan speech. Her PPS, Michael Alison, launched what one might call an emergency outreach programme to backbench MPs, proposing to invite groups for a drink with him in the PM's room, particularly targetting those who “feel a bit left out of things” (Alison, 7 Feb minute). This swiftly turned into a series of small drinks parties at No.10 hosted by MT herself - there were five in March alone - but although Alison told her he had the support of the Chief Whip, in fact there seem to have been reservations on the latter’s part. Alison wrote to Wakeham on 18 Feb:

You mentioned to me that you would prefer that your Area Whips should not “mark the card” for me about colleagues whom I might especially cultivate as feeling left out in the cold.

Whatever the reason for the Chief Whip’s reservations, it is hard to believe such a problem would have arisen (say) a year after the 1983 General Election. It wouldn’t have been needed then, of course.

There is a final personal Westland letter from Charles Powell to MT on 24 July after the Defence Select Committee reported, again thanking her for her stalwart support of her officials.

 

 

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