Margaret Thatcher 'could have been brought down' by Westland affair

New biography cites fresh evidence from senior Whitehall civil servant of PM’s complicity in leaking damaging letter

Margaret Thatcher “could have been brought down” over the Westland affair as her hands were ”not entirely clean”, according to the latest volume of her authorised biography published on Tuesday.

The book’s author, Charles Moore, cites clear evidence from her closest advisers of a “smoking gun” at the heart of the 1986 Westland affair, which could have brought her premiership to an abrupt end when she was at the peak of her powers.

The fresh evidence of Thatcher’s complicity in the affair comes from Colette Bowe, the senior Whitehall civil servant, who was ordered by Downing Street to leak a highly confidential law officer’s letter to damage Thatcher’s rival, Michael Heseltine, and breaks her silence of almost 30 years over the affair.

The biography also quotes Charles Powell, Thatcher’s private secretary, who was himself deeply involved, as conceding that “her hands were not entirely clean”.

Moore says that Thatcher not only ordered the letter to be “drummed up” to damage Heseltine but her closest officials in No 10 cleared the leak before it happened.

Michael Heseltine
Michael Heseltine, the former defence secretary, in Downing Street after storming out of a cabinet meeting during the Westland row. Photograph: PA

The second volume of the biography also discloses just how close Thatcher came to losing the 1984-85 miners’ strike. It details how she “feared the police were not carrying out their duties fully” and how she raised the possibility of using troops when the dockers also came out on strike in July 1984.

The Westland affair was ostensibly about a struggle in government in 1985-86 over whether an American or a European-led consortium should take over Britain’s last remaining helicopter company.

In reality it was a major power struggle between Thatcher and Heseltine at her moment of greatest political danger until she was eventually brought down in 1990. It was resolved when Heseltine dramatically walked out of the cabinet in January 1986. A second cabinet minister, Sir Leon Brittan, also resigned, having to carry the can for the leak of the law officer’s letter.

After Heseltine quit, questions were raised about how a confidential – and highly privileged – solicitor general’s letter, damaging to Heseltine, had made its way into the public domain. The leak was considered a matter so grave that it called into question Thatcher’s survival in office.

Bowe, the senior Whitehall offiicial who leaked the letter, broke her silence in an interview with Moore.

The book’s publishers, Allen Lane, say it reveals the complicity of No 10 and even of Thatcher herself. “Not only did Mrs Thatcher order the law officer’s letter drummed up in a bid to damage Heseltine but Number 10 gave Bowe clearance for the leak before it occurred and made clear their satisfaction after. The PM, Bowe was told, was ‘very relaxed’ about the leak.

“As Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary Charles Powell, himself deeply involved in the affair, conceded: ‘Her hands were not entirely clean.’ Moore concludes that had Bowe been minded to speak then as now she could have brought down the government.”

Bowe was the chief information officer at Brittan’s Department of Trade and Industry, and details the role that Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, and Powell played in leaking the law officer’s letter.

“Charles has given a copy of the letter to me and say it must be got out,” she says Ingham told her. He, however, added: ”I’ve got to keep the PM above the fray.”

“I took a deep breath and thought: ‘OK I’ll have to do it.’” She gave it to Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association, who could be trusted to protect the source. Bowe tells Moore that she did not feel she was under orders from Ingham or that he had bullied he but she did feel if he had advised against it should would not have leaked the letter.

“There is an implicit contract here. I was either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern,” she recalled. “She leaked, getting hold of Moncrieff just after 2pm. All hell duly broke loose that afternoon,” says the biography.

Moore says that if Bowe had told a subsequent Commons inquiry into the Westland affair what had passed between her and Ingham, and in turn what Powell had also told Brittan’s private secretary, John Mogg, and had then revealed Thatcher’s support for the leak, “the storm would have broken upon Mrs Thatcher’s head”.

This matters because in the key Commons showdown over the Westland affair Thatcher insisted to Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, that she did not know how the law officer’s letter reached the public domain and if she had, she would not have approved of it. In her own memoirs, Thatcher records she had confessed to friends on the day of the debate: “I may not be prime minister by 6pm tonight.”


Alan Travis Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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