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Howezat! The day a ‘dead sheep’ turned into a roaring lion

What makes a truly great speech? The ancient Greeks – who knew a thing or two about oratory – reckoned the most important thing by far was timing. They even invented a specific word for it: kairos. Defined by the dictionary as “the perfect, critical or opportune moment”.

The Geoffrey Howe resignation speech which destroyed Margaret Thatcher’s political career precisely 30 years ago last week had kairos by the bucketload. But then it needed to. Delivery was never Howe’s strong point. As his political rival Denis Healey famously noted, an attack from Geoffrey was like “being savaged by a dead sheep”. Without the all-important kairos, the speech would have languished in the footnotes rather than being hailed by the editor of Hansard in 2015 as the greatest parliamentary speech of all time.

I came to appreciate just how exquisite Howe’s timing was when researching my play called – what else? – Dead Sheep. Tuesday 13 November 1990 was indeed the perfect, critical, opportune moment for him to drop his oratorical bomb. Thatcher had been in power for 11 years and her political instincts were fraying.

More specifically, timing wise, Howe made his speech just two days before the closing date for nominations for leadership of the Conservative party. Had he made it six months earlier, Thatcher would probably have ridden it out. By attacking her so spectacularly so close to the deadline, Howe blew the contest – eventually won by John Major – wide open. But for Howe’s speech, she would almost certainly have remained unchallenged or, at worst, faced a stalking horse. The final bit of kairos came via television cameras, which had been allowed into parliament three months earlier. Thatcher’s humiliation was thus rendered fatally public.

Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher
Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher at an EEC summit in Copenhagen in 1987. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Shutterstock

Kairos was crucial then, but there were other factors. The speech was utterly unexpected. No one anticipated anything more than the usual long-winded pomposity. Howe had been Thatcher’s chancellor, foreign secretary and finally, deputy PM, and was thought too loyal to rock the boat. And, as the Guardian’s Hugo Young put it: “Sudden departures have become such a hallmark of the Thatcher years that Howe’s is no longer one capable of shaking the Thatcher world.”

Then there was the rhetoric. In 15 electrifying minutes, the pompous, dumpy, bespectacled Captain Mainwaring of the Tory party demolished Thatcher in a very British way: using understated brutality. “It is a conflict of loyalty with which I have perhaps wrestled too long,” said Howe, a passionate pro-European, referring to Thatcher’s Eurosceptic grandstanding. “How on earth are … [we] … supposed to conduct complex negotiations in good faith with our European partners against that kind of background noise?”

When Howe sat down to a stunned, silent Commons, everyone knew Thatcher was gone. Nine days later, she resigned.

Over the years, myths have developed around the speech. One is that Howe didn’t write it. It was, said detractors (that is, furious Thatcher loyalists), the work of his wife, Elspeth, a campaigner and former head of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, a 1980s version of Ofcom.

Elspeth certainly had the motivation to write it: she couldn’t stand Thatcher and vice versa. Tory grandee John Biffen said the two women were like “wasps in a jam jar”. Elspeth loathed Thatcher’s belittling of Howe in cabinet and in public; Thatcher suspected Elspeth of insurrection and was threatened by her (relatively) hardcore feminism.

In fact, Howe did write it, with input from his adviser Anthony Teasdale. Elspeth inspired it though: she gave him the courage to act. And she must get credit for the speech’s most quoted passage. When Howe was fine tuning, Elspeth alerted him to Thatcher’s rabble-rousing at the lord mayor’s banquet the night before when she had boasted of dispatching critics, Ian Botham-style: “The bowling’s going to get hit all round the ground,” crowed the PM. “That’s my style!” Elspeth, who had been captain of her school cricket team, suggested Howe develop the metaphor to show the consequences of being repeatedly undermined by your boss in public.

Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street
A tearful Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street for the last time as prime minister. Photograph: Ken Lennox/Alamy

He did so, brilliantly: “Mr Speaker. I believe the chancellor and the governor [of the Bank of England] are cricketing enthusiasts, so I hope there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors. It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game, by the team captain.”

It was brilliant because it was brutal – the bit about breaking bats – but also subtle: the “monopoly” reference being a sly dig at his boss’s insufferable imperiousness. Thatcher thinks she’s the only one who can do putdowns, Howe was saying, but guess what? I can, too. And I’m better.

Other theories concerned Howe’s motivation. During my research, I saw several dramas trotting out the received wisdom: Howe was simply a mediocre home counties Judas who wanted revenge on Thatcher for demoting him to the non-job of deputy PM. That’s very reductive. But partly true. It’s impossible to nail down Howe’s motives definitively – who knows what really goes on in the hearts and minds of men? – but it wasn’t just about vengeance. It was about honour. And ambition.

Honour first. Although patriotic, he was a genuine, committed Europhile and believed that Thatcher’s anti-EEC bile was harming the national interest. Europe wasn’t a convenient peg to hang his political ambitions on, Boris Johnson-style. As for ambition, he admitted it in his autobiography, saying: “Every soldier has a field marshal’s baton in his knapsack.” He also wrote of his embarrassment when Thatcher belittled him. Towards the end of their working relationship she would shout in cabinet “Speak up Geoffrey!”, and joke about his ponderousness. He didn’t admit to wanting revenge. But you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to divine a subconscious element of payback.

What can be said definitively, however, is that Howe’s story was a gift to a playwright, with its enticing dramatic arc: the journey from dead sheep to roaring lion. What’s also undeniable is that the play – which is being published this week to mark the speech’s anniversary – portrays events which are still uncannily relevant and resonant.

This was remain v leave a quarter of a century before its time. This was unglamorous statesman v play-to-the-gallery populist: Starmer v Johnson, Biden v Trump. It was also the story of a man and his two marriages: Howe’s long, happy one to Elspeth and his political one to Thatcher.

I thought a lot about Howe when Teresa May was going through her Brexit bill traumas last year. If only someone with Howe’s heft – Labour or Tory – had grasped that kairos moment and made a truly great speech, May’s deal could have passed, she would have survived, and we wouldn’t be enduring the most tragically incompetent, ideologically vacuous PM of modern times.

Where were you, Geoffrey – or your modern equivalent – when we needed you?

  • Dead Sheep by Jonathan Maitland is published by Salamander Street Classic Texts: salamanderstreet.com

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