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The Dead Sheep

Funny that Denis Healey and Geoffrey Howe should die in the same week.

The two men – one a Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Labour government, the other in a Conservative administration – occupied opposite benches in the House of Commons but both ends of one of the most memorable quotes in parliamentary history. Healey one day compared being attacked by Howe in the House – as he was on many an occasion – to being ‘savaged by a dead sheep’.

It was a cruel but clever jibe and the laughter it produced was prolonged and genuine, probably because so few on either side of the House had trouble conjuring up the spectacle of the acerbic Denis, a former beach master during the Anzio landings, swatting away a rather portly and shambling Geoffrey. Some went so far as to complain that likening Howe – a shy, bespectacled man with a thick mane of white hair – to a dead sheep was an affront to dead sheep.

Howe’s studied reticence had often made him the cabinet’s favourite whipping boy. He would say in private to anyone who would listen that a Margaret Thatcher cabinet meeting was like a classroom presided over by a stern headmistress, one who often treated him with the patronising disdain reserved for the class dunce.

Howe’s public persona could never recover from Healey’s remark, or from the all-too accurate portrayal of him in the television puppet show, Spitting Image. But he would have the last laugh, at least on Thatcher, even if it was contrived at the cost of his own departure from government.

The two of them had steadily and increasingly fallen out over her attitude to Europe, and their dispute was an open secret that their colleagues said could only end one way. It did not end quite the way it was expected to. She had throughout airily dismissed the dispute as a clash of style rather than substance. He did something much more decisive, and some would say quite out of character. He quit.

His resignation speech electrified the House of Commons. The wit flowed gently from a gentle man, but each delicate little volley hit the mark. Mrs. Thatcher’s working methods, he said at one point, were “Rather like sending an opening batsman to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

Not one of the most compelling quips in parliamentary history, it must be said, but in delivering it Howe had flattened Mrs. Thatcher’s metaphorical middle stump. More tellingly, all the fielders leapt to their feet, their arms raised in joyous celebration at the boss’s ‘dismissal’.

Twenty-eight days later those quotation marks could be removed. Mrs. Thatcher herself would resign after a challenge to her leadership that none of Geoffrey’s former colleagues tried hard, or wished to, suppress.

Healey allegedly approached Howe after the speech and whispered, “I never thought you had it in you. Well done.” The two became firm friends.

I would like to think that, reunited, they still are.

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