The Survivor: The Political Legacy of Geoffrey Howe


Geoffrey Howe, who has recently died aged 88, holds the rare distinction of profoundly affecting the political fortunes of our longest-serving Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. From his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer at the start of her premiership to his House of Commons resignation speech in November 1990 which undoubtedly resulted in Thatcher’s subsequent resignation, Howe was undoubtedly one of British politics’ most influential figures.

In the Beginning

Hailing from Port Talbot, Howe had the chance to remain in the Army after the completion of his National Service, however he decided to study Law at Trinity College, Cambridge. As a consequence of being the Chairman of the University’s Conservative association, he unsuccessfully stood for the Conservative Party in both the 1954 and 1959 General Elections, in a very safe Labour seat. He notably was the co-author of the report A Giant’s Strength which recommended the curtailing of the legal power of the unions, arguing that they had become too powerful.

Howe was elected as an MP in the 1964 election, representing Bebington, Reigate and East Surrey. Knighted in 1970, he was appointed Shadow Chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s shadow cabinet.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer

When the Conservatives swept to power in 1979, succeeding Callaghan’s disastrous Labour government, Howe continued in his position as Thatcher’s economic man, taking over the keys to 11 Downing Street from the former Chancellor and Howe’s good friend, Denis Healey. Howe’s Chancellorship was marked by a marked effort to reduce inflation, stabilise the public finances and free the economy from ‘red tape’. Howe’s 1981 budget was perhaps the most significant moment of his career as chancellor – in the midst of ‘stagflation’, the government continued their policy of reducing inflation and correction of public finances. This budget was extremely controversial, with the then-leader of Labour Michael Foot condemning the budget as one ‘to produce over 3 million unemployed’.

Inflation was reduced, however, although unemployment was still stubbornly high. Ultimately though, Foot’s main legacy as Chancellor was the introduction of financial policies designed to reduce government interference in the economy, which undoubtedly paved the way for the UK to become the financial powerhouse it is today.

Becoming Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister

From 1983 – 89, Howe was foreign secretary. This period was marked as a time when there were tensions between Thatcher and Howe over foreign issues such as South Africa and the EU. In July 1989, the future Prime Minister John Major replaced Howe unexpectedly as foreign secretary, and the former chancellor became Deputy Prime Minister – although he did turn down the position of Home Secretary.


Perhaps Howe’s most famous political moment was his ‘resignation’ during a speech in the House of Commons – although he actually resigned from the cabinet 2 weeks prior to the infamous speech. His attack on Thatcher ‘for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country’ was widely seen as the defining moment in Thatcher’s fall from the Conservative Party leadership.


He retired from the Commons in 1992, when he moved to the House of Lords until his retirement in May 2015.

Recent revelations regarding Howe’s views on Liverpool in the aftermath of the 1981 Toxeth Riots, thanks to the 30-year rule on ministerial papers, have given further controversy into the economic policies of the early 1980’s.

We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East.

Despite public outcry, Howe maintained that he did not advocate a ‘managed decline‘ policy for Liverpool and that he had merely been warning of the danger of concentrating excessive resources on one area of need.

Howe’s position at the forefront of British politics in such an important decade makes him one of the most influential political figures of the 21st century. His resignation speech in November 1989 remains one of the most dramatic televised moments in parliamentary history, and the fact that he survived the famously ruthless Thatcher cabinet reshuffles means that his political legacy cannot be forgotten.



Deputy Editor of the Wessex Scene for 2015/16. I often write News, Politics and Opinion pieces. As well as writing for the Scene I can be found in the Surge Radio studio, where I am the Head of News. Also, as I'm new to twitter and desperate, follow me!! @95moliver

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