BOOK REVIEW / Howe on earth: a political riddle: Jeremy Paxman on the memoirs of Geoffrey Howe, a man of excessive sang-froid

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IN THE bestiary of the far right, Geoffrey Howe is the man who murdered Margaret Thatcher and brought to an end the greatest prime ministership this century. This is untrue. Margaret Thatcher committed suicide. She fell on her own hubris.

Geoffrey Howe - Mogadon Man, the dead sheep - was, anyway, an unlikely assassin. With the air of a comfortable country solicitor and an oratory to match, he belonged neither to Keith Joseph's Mad Monk tendency nor to Ian Gilmour's gang of post facto hand-wringers. But he had the sort of 'bottom' John Selwyn Gummer would die for, was willing to try to make things work and prepared to play a long game for the chance of a shot at the prime ministership. It was this combination of what the party saw as solid virtues, which made his resignation speech so devasting: chaps like Howe didn't do things like that. Yet if it had not been Howe, it would have been someone else.

We have already heard Margaret Thatcher's version of the lead-in to that memorable November afternoon when a colleague of 16 years turned on her. She has damned her former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary with the view that the effect of the Foreign Office on him was to 'magnify his faults and smother his virtues.' And we know that Mrs Thatcher felt about the Foreign Office the way the Hull Kingston Rovers changing room feels about the women's movement.

Geoffrey Howe, being a gent, ventures scarcely a word of personal criticism in his memoir, Conflict of Loyalty (Macmillan, pounds 25). Indeed there is precious little that is truly personal in the whole book. Aunt Lil and Uncle Edward wander through a sentence or two in the opening chapter. We learn, with less than total surprise, that at Winchester Howe 'never had any ability for ball games,' and led his team to victory in the inter-house National Savings Competition. There is a tiny reference to someone with whom he shared a room in the Royal Signals and who 'was to join me for breakfast in 1993 at the Park Hotel, Cardiff - the setting, exactly 70 years earlier, for my parents' wedding reception.' True Confessions it ain't.

But then, Howe was never that sort of politician: his is the sort of sang-froid you could use to run Bejam. Take the Czech Foreign Minister, Behuslav Chnoupek. Chnoupek was in the habit of taking visiting digitaries around his apartment in the Foreign Ministry. The highlight of the tour was the window from which the Communists maintained that the troublesome Jan Masaryk had 'jumped' or 'fallen' to his death. The Danish Foreign Minister greeted this farrago with the response 'Don't give me that crap, Chnoupek]'

When our own dear Geoffrey was spun the same line, he merely replied: 'As you know, we have a slightly different version of what happened.' Pow] This does not make for lurid writing. There really is a chapter entitled Post- Corset Distortions. If it is hard to recognize in all this the 'fiery Welshman' Elspeth Howe thought she had married, his dryness is occasionally charming. Having bought a portrait of the Foreign Secretary painted by Ruskin Spear, Howe tells us that 'Spear's only other painting in that sale, of an anonymous chimpanzee, fetched a slightly higher price.'

Conflict of Loyalty is not the most sprightly of political memoirs. It is as self- serving as you would expect. It does not contain earth-shattering revelations, though there is the usual settling of old scores. For a chap who makes such a song and dance about being a Wykehamist, there are some surprising signs of mere mortality, from the magical translation of a military policeman into a member of the Canadian Mounties to an apparent inability to distinguish between 'credibility' and 'credulity'.

It is clear from this account of his life that the period he most enjoyed was his time as Foreign Secretary. Thatcher and Lawson have already given their very different accounts of how things degenerated within the cabinet's ruling troika. Howe's book will be the last account of the Thatcher years by anyone who really counts.

There is, though, little surprising in his analysis of how the Thatcher government went off the rails. He cites the Westland crisis as the point at which the domineering tendency of Number 10 began to run out of control. By the late Eighties, according to this account, Mrs Thatcher was behaving like an absolute autocrat. In her final years 'there was no distinction to be drawn between person, government, party, and nation.' The Foreign Secretary came to hate travelling abroad with her 'because of her unquenchable desire to play second fiddle as well as first.'

The issue which finally unseated all three members of the troika was, of course, Europe. Howe confirms Nigel Lawson's account that the two of them had threatened Thatcher with their resignations if they didn't get their way when the Madrid European Summit discussed whether Britain should join the ERM. Howe says that when the Prime Minister stood up to speak in Madrid, he had no idea what she was going to say.

The scar that ambush left upon the Prime Minister is well known. What is harder to understand is why Howe hung around for so long. If the tale of the regeneration of British industry was one of the great lies of the early Thatcher years, the claim that sterling's relationship with Europe has been anything other than bungled from beginning to end is the other. For both, the primary blame is Thatcher's, but Howe must carry the can too.

On one occasion after another the British Foreign Secretary found himself humiliated by a Prime Minister whose beliefs were so obviously not his own.

Mrs Thatcher's Bruges Speech, in which she laid into the ambitions of the European Community 'veered between caricature and misunderstanding,' yet he sat through it. Her 'no, no, no', when she short-circuited in the Commons after the Rome EC summit, was the final declamation which provoked him to quit the non- existent post of Deputy Prime Minister.

Why had he put up with it? There were many in the party who wanted him to mount a challenge to Margaret Thatcher when Sir Anthony Meyer emerged blinking as the stalking horse. He ducked that chance, he says, out of 'loyalty'.

Any politician has to acquire the hide of a rhinoceros. The best ones can somehow marry that to the sensitivity of a bat. In Howe's favour it should be said that he did not run away from decisions, even if some of them seem heartless or misguided. He clearly enjoyed not only the thrashing out of policy but the perquisites of power, the grace-and-favour country houses, the RAF planes and the rest. As he implied in his resignation speech, that attachment to office may in the end have overshadowed what he actually did.

Conflict of Loyalty is an attempt to ensure that he is not remembered merely in the way Malcolm recalled the Thane of Cawdor: 'nothing in his life / became him like the leaving it'.

(Photograph omitted)