As we enter November and leave British Summer Time behind, we reach the 21st anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as prime minister. Despite the melodrama of more recent political events, it is hard to imagine what Westminster must have been like in the three weeks between Geoffrey Howe quitting the cabinet and Thatcher being forced from office. Or is it?
The issue of Britain’s place within Europe was dominating the political agenda. An unpopular prime minister had suffered a damaging rebellion from her own party. The Tories were trailing in the polls. The economy was inching towards a recession. And a high profile member of the cabinet had just resigned.
Far from being unique, this has an eerily familiar feel.
The reasons for Thatcher’s fall from grace are, of course, complex. However, the breaking point came when former chancellor and Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, resigned from the cabinet on 1 November.
Howe’s decision was centred upon Thatcher’s uncompromising stance on Europe. He believed that Britain needed to be at the heart of European affairs in order to best serve our national interests. Referring to a series of late starts, he said “It would be a tragedy, not just for our financial institutions and our industrial strength, but also for the aspirations of a younger generation, if we were to risk making the same mistake again, by trying to draw an arbitrary line under our engagement in the European process.”
Howe’s resignation, followed by his legendary speech from the backbenches two weeks later, triggered yet another leadership contest and within a week the longest serving prime minister of the twentieth century announced her decision to step down.
Two decades later, the ‘E’ word is once again topping the political agenda, bookending the last parliamentary week and taking up half of the floor time in the Commons. The backbench motion on Monday relating to a referendum on British membership of the European Union dominated the headlines and saw the biggest ever Tory rebellion over Europe. The second, on Thursday, saw a day long debate on the British chairmanship of the Council of Europe.
The issue of Europe is an important one and it triggers a great deal of debate amongst the public. Europe is crying out for fundamental reform and it is right that a sensible, principled debate on Britain’s place within the EU should take place. However, as the economy continues to flat line and the brunt of the coalition’s cuts begin to hit, the issue is proving to be a pointless distraction from more serious issues.