The toxic ‘E’ word: 21 years on, the Tories learnt nothing from Geoffrey Howe

Published in Total Politics Magazine on Tuesday, 1st November, 2011.

Even by Westminster’s standards, the past week has been bizarre. Parliament has been engrossed by an puzzling backbench debate on the issue of Britain’s place within Europe. The House of Commons, the tea rooms and parliamentary bar have again been filled with non-stop chatter about the ‘E’ word. It culminated in David Cameron suffering a needless blow to his authority following the biggest ever Conservative rebellion over Europe.

As the economy risks sliding back into recession, the Tories appear to be transfixed on ideological profligacy rather than adopting a pragmatic approach to governing and dealing with more urgent realities.

This seems eerily familiar.

Today marks the twenty-first anniversary of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation. On 1 November 1990, the former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary quit the Conservative front bench and triggered a political tidal wave that ultimately led to Margaret Thatcher’s fall from office.

The reason behind his decision to stand down was Thatcher’s hard-line stance on Europe, which he believed risked alienating Britain and undermining our long term interests. “We must be at the centre of the European partnership, playing the sort of leading and constructive role which commands respect,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “We need to be able to persuade friends as well as challenge opponents, and to win arguments before positions become entrenched.”

The tidal wave became a tsunami following his legendary resignation speech in the Commons where he delivered a mild mannered but devastating critique of Thatcher’s management style and approach towards Europe. Criticising her uncompromising stance and habit of undermining Ministers during negotiations, Howe famously remarked: “its rather like sending your opening batsman to the crease only for them to find… that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

The resignation was the final nail in Thatcher’s political coffin. It led to a leadership contest – the second within the a year – and a week later the longest serving prime minister of the twentieth century tendered her resignation to the Queen.

Two decades later, the issue of Europe has again exploded onto the political agenda. The Conservatives’ preoccupation with it is proving to be a dangerous distraction. As the economy flat lines and the impact of the government’s cuts are starting to hit home, Britain is crying out for answers. Rather than providing responsible leadership, the past week has shown that the Conservative Party is stuck firmly in the past.

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