August 10, 2012 11:05 pm

The List: Politics and the art of the long goodbye

A quartet of remarkable Conservative resignations
Former defence secretary Michael Heseltine in Downing Street after storming out of a cabinet meeting during the Westland row©PA

Michael Heseltine

This week chick-lit author turned Conservative MP Louise Mensch announced her resignation from parliament to spend more time in New York with her children and husband Peter, manager of the rock band Metallica. Here George Parker recalls a quartet of rather more traditional Conservative resignations.

1. Noblesse oblige

The foreign secretary Lord Carrington quit in 1982 after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, but what made this resignation stand out was the fact that it was a rare example of a minister accepting full responsibility for a screw-up on his watch. His refreshingly straightforward interpretation of “ministerial responsibility” did not exactly set a trend: most holders of government office try to cling on until the media finally hound them out.

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2. Furious ambition

The fate of a Somerset helicopter company triggered one of the most memorable of all resignations, when the golden-maned defence secretary Michael Heseltine stormed out of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in 1986 at the height of the Westland affair in the full glare of the media. Heseltine wanted to keep the company out of US hands but the details are less important than what happened next. The affair brought down another minister, Leon Brittan, and sent Hezza into the wilderness; four years later, he would return to bring down Thatcher.

3. Family reasons

In January 1990 Thatcher’s employment secretary Norman Fowler quit to “spend more time with my family”, coining that now famous euphemism for British political resignations. But, after two years in the bosom of his family, he returned to politics as Tory chairman after John Major’s election victory. He went on to take a series of high-profile jobs, presumably to the disappointment of the rest of the Fowler household.

4. All about Europe

Thatcher’s chancellor, foreign secretary and punchbag, the mild-mannered Geoffrey Howe finally snapped in 1990 in a row with the prime minister over Europe. His devastating resignation speech was delivered with all the oratorical flair of a “speak your weight” machine but it electrified the Commons. Thatcher sat through the speech stony-faced and, within four weeks, she was gone.

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

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