Sir Geoffrey’s message: ‘In the name of God, go’

Political commentator Peter Jenkins on Geoffrey Howe’s devastating attack on the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher

 

 

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The Independent Online

14 November 1990

It was more than a resignation speech; it was a bill of impeachment against the Prime Minister. Her “nightmare vision of Europe” threatened the future of the nation, he told her, and invited his party to address the conflict between “the true interests of this nation” and loyalty to the leader of the Conservative Party. The House of Commons had heard nothing like it since 7 May 1940 when Leo Amery delivered the coup de grace to Neville Chamberlain with Cromwell’s injunction: “In the name of God, go.”

This was the plain meaning of Sir Geoffrey’s message; it was less than an endorsement of Michael Heseltine but a plain invitation to the Conservative Party to withdraw its confidence from the Prime Minister. His searing sarcasm and scathing ridicule of Mrs Thatcher’s version of Europe enraged the hard core of Thatcher loyalists, who attributed his remarks to personal spite and bitterness. But to most of the House, and to the millions watching on television, the speech must have struck them as that of a true patriot and loyal Conservative who had decided to put both country and party above Prime Minister.

Style and substance were indivisible, according to Sir Geoffrey, as he mounted his indictment against the Prime Minister who persistently undermined the negotiating position of her colleagues and seemed bent on isolating Britain from its European partners. For this there was no need, he told his party: there was a middle way…

How the chemistry of the Conservative Party reacts we shall see over the next few frantic days. One effect of Sir Geoffrey will be to polarise the forces for and against Mrs Thatcher.

MPs on either side of the divide can no longer doubt that this issue has to be resolved and that in a contest for the leadership lies the only hope of resolving it.

They will have to reckon also on the damage done to the authority and credibility of Mrs Thatcher’s leadership, should she survive to lead them into the coming election. She and her government are now fighting for their lives…

Obituaries of Mrs Thatcher have a habit of proving premature, but she is a mortal politician like any other. Before yesterday’s devastating indictment, some of her colleagues were beginning already to sniff disaster in the air. Last night her champions had been thrown on to the defensive, desperately trying to play the “Gulf card” or bang the increasingly hollow-sounding sovereignty drum.

If she falls she will, like all tragic heroes, have been the chief author of her own disaster, splitting her party and assembling against her an army of enemies. On her political gravestone will be the words: “She Went Too Far.”

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