Cabinet papers show Thatcher advisers’ ‘struggle’ with Heseltine over Westland

National Archives release files from 1985-86 revealing how Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham plotted against the then defence secretary

The open hostility between Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street and Michael Heseltine at the height of the Westland affair is laid bare in newly released cabinet papers from 1985 and 1986.

They show how Thatcher’s two closest advisers plotted against the then defence secretary, talking about his “game plan” and his “new trick” and of getting intelligence from a “friend” within Heseltine’s Ministry of Defence.

The two Downing Street files released by the National Archives on Tuesday show that Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, and press secretary, Bernard Ingham, considered themselves to be involved in what they openly referred to as a struggle with Heseltine and that they kept her informed every step of the way.

The papers on the Westland affair also show that Heseltine made clear to Thatcher that he would resign over Westland before he quit by walking out of a cabinet meeting on 7 January 1986.

The warnings may explain how Thatcher was able within half an hour to replace Heseltine with George Younger as defence secretary and resume the cabinet meeting.

They also show that at the height of the affair, Heseltine even went as far as to claim that a previously unknown Libyan involvement in the American consortium bidding to takeover the West Country helicopter company could inflict “grave embarrassment to the national interest”.

But six crucial No 10 files dating from January 1986 which could contain the “smoking gun” of the Westland affair have been temporarily withheld. They are expected to detail the role of Thatcher and her closest advisers at the time of the leak of the solicitor-general’s letter and the subsequent resignation of Leon Brittan from the cabinet. A National Archives spokesman said it is intended they will be available in the near future.

The Westland affair was ostensibly about a struggle in government over whether a US-led Sikorski-Fiat consortium or a European-led Agusta consortium should take over Britain’s last remaining helicopter company.

It was to prove a major power struggle between Thatcher and Heseltine and her moment of greatest political danger until she was eventually brought down in 1990.

At one point just before a crucial Commons debate on the affair, she confessed to friends: “I may not be prime minister by 6pm tonight.”

Powell constantly kept Thatcher in the loop, telling her in one typical note: “Although not strictly for your eyes, you might like to glance at this helpful account of the lengths to which the MoD are going.”

In another note, Powell reports that “inquiries of my friend in the MoD” confirm that Heseltine had lunched that day with political journalist Tony Bevins, that the MoD believed Brittan has misled the Commons, that Jim Prior’s GEC would put in extra cash, and that if the European consortium had not won by 27 December, Heseltine would cancel his holiday to Nepal. He did.

The file shows the first warning to Thatcher was delivered indirectly on 23 December with her parliamentary private secretary, Michael Alison, reporting that Heseltine had given Lord Fanshawe, a former pro-European Tory MP and a Westland director, the impression that he would resign if the European option was not adopted following his “humiliation” in cabinet.

The second warning came in the form of a handwritten letter to Thatcher from Heseltine himself on the same day following a note in which he raised the security problem posed by a 13% minority Libyan shareholding in Fiat and the presence of two Libyans on its board, and a third in its senior executive team.

Heseltine said he had asked the joint intelligence chiefs to report on the security implications of something “which could cause grave embarrassment to the government” and urged her to support the rival European bid.

“I know that the last sentence of my note will not be an easy one for you. I also think that you will understand the depth of my convictions on this matter,” he told her.

Thatcher’s aides dismissed the Libyan angle, telling the PM that: “The Americans are even more sensitive about both security and Libya than we are. They seem content for Fiat to be involved with Sikorski.”

The file also reveals one previously unknown bizarre twist in the Westland tale: earlier in 1985 an order for 12 helicopters “to tackle elephant poachers’’ was mooted by Kenneth Kuanda’s Zambia to save Westland helicopters from going bust.

This move, which was initiated at the suggestion of the controversial businessman “Tiny” Rowland, was firmly rejected in Downing Street saying it would provoke a major overseas aid scandal as it was to be financed by 100% grants from Britain’s overseas aid budget.


Alan Travis, home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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