Release of MT's private files for 1986 - (1) Westland, crisis breaks

The year 1986 opened with MT in the midst of the worst crisis of her premiership till it ended almost five years later. We release new papers on that event, and much else besides.


"11.7 - end of discussion MH resigned"
MT notes time of Heseltine's walkout from cabinet

To outside observers Westland was hard to fathom. The issue had something not far off comical status as late as December 1985; not quite realising how bad it all was, Leon Brittan's journalist brother Sam thought it would be funny to buy him a toy helicopter for Christmas. Then, quite abruptly, in January 1986 Westland became an existential crisis for the Thatcher government, as well as first rate political theatre, when Michael Heseltine literally walked out of the cabinet on 9 Jan.

Even though the crisis was over by the end of the month – finally brought to a close by MT’s speech in the Commons on 27 Jan – the year was defined by it. Much happened in its shadow, was judged a consequence of Westland, evidence of recovery from it (or recurrence).

Although MT and her supporters frequently made the argument that the affair had no reality to it, that it was merely a Westminster tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, plainly it amounted to more than that. For all the sometimes forced arguments about American and European options, cancelled meetings, leaked letters and the circulation of minutes, Westland had one point of huge substance: it saw a genuine contest for power in the Conservative Party, one that MT came very close to losing.

It is no accident that Westland anticipated her final demise in 1990. Many of the people were the same, the issues too. Once again an argument within cabinet could not be contained and blew out into the street, rivals chancing their arm against a dangerously isolated leader.

Perhaps 1990 was different in one respect though: with the experience of Westland behind her MT must have had an inkling what the end would look like, and also how it would feel.


We are releasing now the text of a letter MT drafted but did not send to Michael Heseltine on 18 Dec 1985, an ultimatum to tow the line or give up office. It ends bluntly: “In this situation no Minister should use his position to promote one commercial option in preference to another – so long as he remains in Government”.

The important thing about the letter of course is that it was not sent. Throughout the crisis MT was wary of any course that might finally provoke Heseltine’s resignation or gather sympathy for him once he actually had, putting her in an uncomfortably and uncharacterically defensive position, at odds with her habit and instinct. She knew well that on this topic she was dangerously isolated in cabinet, profoundly so, that he had too many friends in the Parliamentary Party and in the Conservative press for her to crack the whip.

The situation in Cabinet seems to have been the core of her problem. From 1979-81 she had fought in the war of the wets vs the dries, skilfully manoeuvring to control policy even though numerically her side was in the minority. By 1986 the dries had prevailed, but there was a sting in the tail. Her closest allies in that fight had been alienated, one-by-one. Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Norman Tebbit all stood back during Westland. One suspects they did not want Heseltine to win, but were determined not to make things easy for her, above all to ensure she did not crush him.

There is even a document from this time showing a concession to Heseltine regarding circulation of cabinet papers, prepared for her to use at the cabinet meeting on 19 Dec and marked by her: “19/12/85. Not necessary – S. of S. did not so request”. Heseltine missed the trick, but it is telling that she dropped the ultimatum and prepared a concession instead.

There are three situation reports by Charles Powell on 3 and 4 Jan 1986, personal to MT not for circulation outside No.10, not all copied to the main files now at the National Archives in Kew. His and MT’s joint frustration with the DTI’s handling of Heseltine comes through very clearly, and it is in one of those memos that one first reads of the fateful idea that the Solicitor-General should write a letter taxing Heseltine with “a material inaccuracy” in a letter he had published the day before. Powell was doubtful of the value of the move: “I think this is worth doing but don’t place great reliance on it. Mr Heseltine will all too easily obtain statements from other Ministers to give substance to the assertions in his letter”. Powell does not mention the idea of leaking the letter, but it would seem implicit, since the point was to combat assertions Heseltine had already published.

That minute (dated 4 Jan) is already available at TNA in Kew, though the one we are releasing now is the top copy and a striking fact is that neither is annotated in any way by MT, not even initialled. It is rare to find in her files an important document, or even an unimportant one, that she had not annotated or at a minimum initialled. Surely she had read this one. Unless a third annotated copy comes to light from some surprising source, it is hard not to suspect that she felt an impulse to put some distance between herself and this particular minute.

We have several documents from the actual cabinet meeting which saw Heseltine walk out, on Thursday 9 Jan. Most important, there are notes she seems to have written as an aide-memoire for her opening remarks, which appear in similar form in the final cabinet minutes. (For convenience there is a transcription included alongside PDFs of her handwriting.) Michael Heseltine mentions in his memoirs her pulling a piece of paper from her handbag – a “tatty” piece of paper was his description to Charles Moore – and proceeding to read the conclusions of the meeting at the very start of it. So much for cabinet discussion!

In fact these notes suggest that what she read at the beginning of the meeting was the riot act. “If this situation continues NO CREDIBILITY. Never seen clearer demonstration of damaging consequences that ensue for the coherence and standing of a govt. when the principle of collective responsibility is not respected”. It must have been galling for Michael Heseltine to hear, but there is no trace of the conclusions in the notes she read. They contain a striking annotation by MT at top right of p1: “11.7. End of discussion. M.H. resigned”.

There is a draft in Robert Armstrong’s handwriting of part of the conclusions. Did she read this out perhaps? It seems unlikely. It would mean she read two things, not one, five bits of paper (none especially tatty). And in fact the Armstrong draft doesn’t include the thing that especially provoked Heseltine: that ministers should clear further statements on Westland through the Cabinet Office.

Finally from the 9 Jan cabinet, we have some notes passed to MT from officials as they scrambled to respond to Heseltine’s walking out. Ingham reported what Heseltine had said to a TV man fortuitously filming in Downing Street as he left the building and Nigel Wicks (head of the Private Office at No.10) told MT there was no decision as to holding a lobby briefing for the press that morning without her agreement – the next would be at 4. (In the event there was one at 12.10, and another at 5.30, notes of which we are releasing.) MT dated the Wicks minute and recorded that it had been passed into cabinet. She was consciously assembling records of what had just happened.




Next page - Westland, a near death experience