Reading this weekend’s obituaries of Geoffrey Howe it is clear how he will be remembered best – as “Thatcher’s assassin.” Once Margaret Thatcher’s close Cabinet ally, he turned on her in a resignation speech famous for its deadly venom.
I was a political editor at Westminster in 1990, and I was in the hushed, stunned Commons chamber the day the former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary delivered his assault. His tone was calm, his language measured, yet the effect was one of a heavyweight knock-out punch.
Brilliant power of words
It is a brilliant example of the immense power of a few well-chosen words. Because Howe used no violent, dramatic or insulting language.
His cricket analogy is justly famous – she was the captain who had broken her team’s bats before they went out to play.
I prefer Howe’s final line, however: “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.”
Masterclass of murderous mutiny
This was a mutinous call for political murder couched in the politest of terms. Mrs Thatcher must go, he was saying, and you, my colleagues, have to destroy her.
It was the antithesis to shouty slogans or revolutionary fervour, yet when he sat down on the green Commons benches I and my colleagues in the Press Gallery looked at each other in wide-eyed disbelief.
The man whose usual rhetoric had been likened to “being savaged by a dead sheep” had pulled off a masterclass. Within ten days she had quit as Prime Minister.
Keep it short, keep it simple
Then a journalist, now a copywriter, my mantra has always been: “Keep it short, keep it simple.” A few words are often enough to get your message across. Choose the right words and your audience won’t forget. I certainly will never forget that day, one of the most dramatic of my time at Westminster!