Attack on Thatcher Seen As Possible Foundation for Challenge
LONDON (AP) _ Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s former deputy Sir Geoffrey Howe launched a scathing attack against her Tuesday, telling the House of Commons she has split the government and jeopardized Britain’s future.
Several lawmakers said Howe’s action set the stage for the most serious challenge to Mrs. Thatcher in her 11 years as prime minister.
The most likely challenger, former Defense Minister Michael Heseltine, had until midday Thursday to decide whether to run against her in the annual election for leader of the governing Conservative Party and thus prime minister.
Howe resigned Nov. 1 to protest Mrs. Thatcher’s rejection of a plan adopted by the 11 other European Community leaders at a summit in Rome to set up a single central bank by 1994 and a single currency, perhaps by the year 2000.
Howe, a member of Mrs. Thatcher’s first Cabinet in 1979, said he had long tried to ″persuade from within″ to change Mrs. Thatcher’s combative stance toward the rest of the European Community.
″But I realize now the task has become futile ... of trying to pretend there was a common policy when every step forward risked being subverted by some casual comment or impulsive answer,″ Howe said.
He contrasted Winston Churchill’s vision of a United States of Europe with ″the nightmare image sometimes conjured up by the prime minister, who seems to look out on a continent that is positively teeming with ill- intentioned people.″
Mrs. Thatcher rejects a single currency as undermining national sovereignty.
″The tragedy is the prime minister’s perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation,″ Howe said. ″It risks minimizing our influence and maximizing our chance of being again shut out.″
With Mrs. Thatcher listening silently a few yards away, Howe, 63, said he had been torn between loyalty to the leader he served for 11 years as treasury chief and foreign secretary, and loyalty to the nation’s best interests.
Legislators of the normally well-disciplined Conservative Party were stunned by the ferocity of the attack.
″There is no doubt that there will now be a leadership challenge, and that challenge, I think, will be strengthened by what has been said,″ said legislator David Howell, a former transportation secretary fired by Mrs. Thatcher in 1983.
″I don’t know whether or not we’ll have the same leadership next week,″ said Conservative lawmaker Tim Devlin, who supports closer ties within Europe. Norman Tebbit, a former Cabinet member and a strong supporter of Mrs. Thatcher, predicted she would survive a leadership challenge, but said Howe ″has not made it any easier for her.″
The leader is chosen by secret ballot of the 372 Conservative legislators.
Heseltine, whose challenge has been anticipated ever since he stalked out of a Cabinet meeting and resigned in 1986, said nothing after the speech.
Earlier in the day, he gave a speech in Hamburg, Germany, in which he took issue with Mrs. Thatcher’s view that closer union within Europe requires any compromise of national sovereignty.
The prime minister made no comment on Howe’s speech, but officials speaking privately said she was ″saddened.″
Loyalists rallied round.
″The fact is, he has the power to wound, and not to be constructive,″ said legislator Gerald Howarth, a deputy energy minister. ″Some of us who are at the forefront, and constitute the majority for the government at the moment, don’t feel that speeches like that are calculated to be helpful.″
Legislator Teddy Taylor declared: ″It was a vicious speech.″
The latest dispute over Europe broke out with the government already in deep economic trouble. Mrs. Thatcher has been beset by double-digit inflation, high interest rates and 16 months of bad opinion ratings.