Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe, Baron Howe of Aberavon, CH, PC, QC (born 20 December 1926), usually known until 1992 as Sir Geoffrey Howe, is a senior British Conservative politician. He was Margaret Thatcher's longest-serving Cabinet minister, successively holding the posts of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and finally Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Prime Minister. His resignation on November 1, 1990 is widely thought to have hastened Thatcher's own downfall three weeks later, in perhaps the most dramatic period of British Conservative politics in recent times.
Geoffrey Howe was born in 1926 at Port Talbot in Wales. He was educated at Winchester College and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read Law. He was called to the Bar in 1952 and was made a QC in 1965. He became chairman of the Bow Group, an internal Tory think tank of 'young modernisers' in the 1960s, and edited its magazine Crossbow.
Howe represented Bebington in the House of Commons from 1964 to 1966, Reigate from 1970 to 1974, and Surrey East from 1974 to 1992. In 1970 he was knighted and appointed Solicitor General in Edward Heath's government, and in 1972 became Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, with a seat in the Cabinet, a post he held until Labour took power in March 1974.
In Opposition between 1974 and 1979, Howe contested the second ballot of the 1975 Conservative leadership election (in which Margaret Thatcher was elected), and then was appointed by Thatcher as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. He masterminded the development of new economic policies embodied in an Opposition mini-manifesto called "The Right Approach to the Economy". Labour Chancellor Denis Healey famously described being attacked by his Tory shadow as "like being savaged by a dead sheep".
With Conservative victory in the 1979 general election, Howe became Chancellor of the Exchequer himself. His tenure was characterised by radical policies to correct the public finances, reduce inflation and liberalise the economy. The shift from direct to indirect taxation, the development of a Medium Term Financial Strategy, the abolition of exchange controls and the creation of tax-free enterprise zones were among important decisions of his Chancellorship. Some commentators regard him as the most successful Chancellor of his era.
After the 1983 general election Thatcher appointed Howe Foreign Secretary, a post he held for six years and much enjoyed. He became in effect the ambassador for a Britain whose international stature had been revived by the growing success of the 'Thatcher revolution', reaping the benefits of his own time as Chancellor. He played an important part in reasserting the role of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and he developed a strong working relationship with US Secretary of State George Schultz, paralleling the Reagan-Thatcher duo. His tenure was made difficult, however, by growing behind-the-scenes tensions with the Prime Minister on a number of issues, first on South Africa and then on Britain's relations with the European Community. In June 1989, Howe and his successor as Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, secretly threatened jointly to resign over Thatcher's refusal to countenance British membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System.
The following month, July 1989, the inexperienced John Major was unexpectedly appointed to replace Howe as Foreign Secretary, and the latter became Leader of the House of Commons, Lord President of the Council and Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In the reshuffle, which was a presentational disaster, Howe was also offered, but turned down, the post of Home Secretary. Howe's move back to domestic politics was generally seen as a demotion, especially after Thatcher's press secretary Bernard Ingham belittled the significance of the DPM appointment at his morning lobby briefing the following day. The sceptical attitude towards Howe in No 10 was widely seen as weakening him politically – even if it may have been driven initially by fear of him as a possible successor – a problem compounded by the resignation of Nigel Lawson later the same year. During his time as DPM, Howe made a series of calls on Thatcher to re-position her administration, which was suffering rising unpopularity because of the Poll Tax, as a 'listening government' that would combine economic and social liberalism at home with an internationalist foreign policy abroad.
With pressures mounting on Thatcher on several fronts, Howe resigned from the Cabinet on November 1, 1990 – in the aftermath of the Prime Minister's isolation at the Rome European Council, at which she had declared that Britain would never enter a single currency – writing a letter in which he attacked Thatcher's position on and overall handling of Europe. In a hard-hitting resignation speech in the Commons on November 13, he offered stunned MPs a cricket metaphor for British negotiations in Europe: "It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain". He called on others to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long". This attack on Thatcher is widely seen as an important factor in catalysing the leadership challenge of Michael Heseltine a few days later against Thatcher, and in her subsequent resignation on November 22, 1990, after failing to win outright on the first ballot.
Howe retired from the Commons in 1992 and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon, of Tandridge in the County of Surrey. He published his memiors "Conflict of Loyalty" (Macmillan, 1994) soon after. He took on a number of non-executive directorships in business and advisory posts in the law and academia, including as international political adviser to the major US law firm, Jones Day. His wife Elspeth Howe, a former Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, was made a life peer in 2001 as Baroness Howe of Idlicote. As a result of her husband having received a knighthood and later a peerage, and she herself then being made a peer in her own right, she has been referred to as "Lady, Lady, Lady Howe".
Lord Howe is a patron of the UK Metric Association, a pressure group which argues for the full implementation of the metrication programme in the UK, begun in 1965. He was a close personal friend of Ian Gow, the former parliamentary private secretary and personal confidant of Margaret Thatcher, who was murdered by the IRA in July 1990.