The Westland affair in 1985-86 was an episode in which the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Defence Minister Michael Heseltine went public over a complex cabinet dispute with questions raised about integrity and which senior official was not telling the truth.
The argument was a result of differences of opinion as to the future of the British helicopter industry. The struggling Westland Aircraft company, Britain's last helicopter manufacturer, was to be the subject of a rescue bid. While the Defence Secretary Heseltine favoured a European solution, integrating Westland and British Aerospace (BAe) with Italian (Agusta) and French companies, the Prime Minister and the Trade and Industry Secretary Leon Brittan wanted to see Westland merge with Sikorsky, an American company. Heseltine refused to accept Thatcher's choice and suggested she had lied about it. She had leaked a confidential letter, then tried to cover that up. It resulted in resignations in January 1986 by Heseltine and Brittan. The episode embarrassed the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in 1986 and hurt her reputation.
The Westland affair originated with Alan Bristow's bid for the company in April 1985. By June, Bristow was threatening to end his bid unless the Government assured him that there would be future orders for the company from the Ministry of Defence and that the repayment of over £40 million of launch aid for Westland's newest helicopter from the Department of Trade and Industry was waived.
At a Government meeting it was decided that Norman Tebbit, the then Trade and Industry Secretary, should persuade the Bank of England to cooperate with the main creditors in the hope that a recovery plan and new management would end the threat of receivership. Bristow withdrew his bid and Sir John Cuckney became chairman of Westland.
Shortly thereafter an American company was thought to be preparing to bid for the company. Cuckney opposed this particular bid, as did Tebbit and Heseltine. Cuckney proposed that a new minority shareholder of 29.9% be introduced. No British firm was willing to enter this but an American company, Sikorsky, was interested. In November 1985, Sikorsky made an offer and Westland's management were favourable.
Heseltine was opposed to the offer from Sikorsky and called a conference of the National Armaments Directors (NAD) of Britain, France, Italy and West Germany to sign a document which would commit each country to only purchase helicopters designed and manufactured in Europe. If Westland went ahead with Sikorsky its helicopters, under this new agreement, would be unable to be bought by the four governments. Thatcher's and Leon Brittan's view was that it was up to Westland to decide which deal it wanted, and not the Government.
Thatcher then convened two meetings to discuss Westland with Heseltine, Brittan, Tebbit, William Whitelaw, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson on 5 and 6 December. Brittan, who had replaced Tebbit as Trade and Industry Secretary in September 1985, argued that NAD's opposition should be set aside, but Heseltine, Howe and Tebbit disagreed.
Thatcher called a Cabinet meeting for 9 December, which Cuckney also attended to give a speech. Cuckney said that it was the management's view that the Sikorsky option was the best one. A majority of the Cabinet meeting agreed to dismiss NAD's opposition but Thatcher gave consent to both Heseltine and Brittan to explore a possible European deal which Westland's management could accept. She gave them until 4 pm on 13 December and if by then Westland rejected the European package, NAD's recommendations would be formally rejected. Westland chose Sikorsky instead of the European firms but Heseltine wanted another Cabinet meeting. Thatcher rejected his demands because Westland had made up its mind on which deal it would recommend.
At a Cabinet meeting on 12 December Heseltine, without warning, tried to discuss Westland but Thatcher was not willing to without the necessary papers. Heseltine was angry and claimed a meeting on Westland had been cancelled but Thatcher argued that no such meeting had ever been scheduled. Heseltine wanted his views on the alleged cancelled meeting to be included in the Cabinet minutes; it was not going to be mentioned until the Cabinet Secretary noticed they were absent, and added it himself.
Later, the European consortium came up with a new bid and Heseltine thought the Government's policy should be changed to enable the European bid to succeed. The disagreements between Brittan and Heseltine over Westland became public and were widely reported in the media.
Westland's management were worried about future business with European governments and Thatcher replied to Cuckney to the effect that the British Government would continue to support it. Heseltine wanted to include less supportive views, but Thatcher did not allow this.
In early January Lloyds Bank sent Heseltine a letter and in Heseltine's reply he listed the things which in his view would happen if Westland chose Sikorsky instead of the European alternative. Heseltine claimed, contradicting Thatcher's reassurances to Cuckney, that Westland risked losing future European orders if the Sikorsky option was chosen. Heseltine leaked this letter to The Times. The letter, on Thatcher's request, was referred to the Solicitor-General, Patrick Mayhew.
Mayhew sent a reply to Heseltine, noting "material inaccuracies" in Heseltine's letter. On 6 January Mayhew's letter was selectively leaked to the Press Association by the Chief Information Officer of the DTI, Colette Bowe on whose orders became a controversy. The Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, took a stern view of leaks and threatened to resign if an official inquiry was not set up to look into it. Thatcher agreed to do this.
A Cabinet meeting on Westland was scheduled for 9 January. Brittan and Heseltine both put forward their views. Thatcher concluded by saying that as this was a time of business negotiations all answers relating to Westland should be cleared through the Cabinet Office. Heseltine agreed. Nicholas Ridley intervened and asked whether this included not only future statements but repetition of past statements too. Thatcher gave an affirmative to both. Heseltine argued that he should be allowed to reaffirm statements he had already made but Thatcher disagreed, arguing that Cabinet collective responsibility should be observed. Heseltine was then said to have replied that there had been no collective responsibility in Westland.
Peter Jenkins claims that Heseltine lost his cool, gathered his papers, got up from his chair and proclaimed "I can no longer be a member of this Cabinet" and then left the room. Heseltine then stormed out of Downing Street and announced his resignation to the assembled media. Within a few hours of his resignation, Heseltine produced a twenty-two minute statement of 2,500 words detailing his grievances. He blamed Thatcher's intransigence, saying his views were ignored. Thatcher sent a letter to Heseltine, as is customary on these occasions.
Thatcher then adjourned the Cabinet for a brief break. George Younger was then offered and accepted the office of Secretary of State for Defence, which Heseltine had just relinquished. The Prime Minister's office then requested Malcolm Rifkind to take up Younger's previous job, Secretary of State for Scotland, which he accepted. Cabinet then resumed. On 13 January, Thatcher held a meeting with Whitelaw, Brittan, Younger and John Wakeham to decide what should then happen. The conclusion was that Brittan, rather than the Prime Minister, should reply to Heseltine's statement on that day. When in the House of Commons, Heseltine asked whether any letters from British Aerospace had been received. Brittan did receive a letter from BAe but it was marked Private and Strictly Confidential so he said in effect that he did not receive one. He was forced to return to the House a few hours later to apologise.
On 15 January there was a debate on Westland in the Commons in which Thatcher replied to Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party. Thatcher listed all the ministerial, committee and Cabinet meetings on Westland. Heseltine then made a speech criticising the way collective responsibility had been damaged over Westland.
Sir Robert Armstrong, the Cabinet Secretary, held an inquiry into the leaking of Mayhew's letter and reported his findings to the Prime Minister on 21 January. Armstrong concluded that Brittan had told Bowe to leak Mayhew's letter through a telephone conversation to Roger Mogg, Brittan's private secretary. Thatcher is said to have asked Brittan four times: "Leon, why didn't you tell me." Havers, who demanded the inquiry, later claimed: "Unless the PM is the most marvellous actress I've ever seen in my life she was as shocked as anybody that in fact it was on Leon Brittan's instructions."
On 23 January, Thatcher had to make a speech to the Commons on Armstrong's inquiry. A meeting of the 1922 Committee, Conservative back-benchers, demanded Brittan's resignation. On 24 January therefore Brittan resigned because "it has become clear to me that I no longer command the full confidence of my colleagues."
On 27 January, Labour set down an adjournment motion. Whitelaw, Howe, Wakeham, John Biffen and Douglas Hurd helped Thatcher draft her speech for this occasion. Ronald Millar, one of the Prime Minister's friends, was asked to help revise the speech and Thatcher remarked to him that she might cease to be Prime Minister by six o'clock that evening if things went bad.
Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Opposition, was generally thought to have made a poor opening speech. Alan Clark recorded in his diary that "For a few seconds Kinnock had her cornered ... But then he had an attack of wind, gave her time to recover." Heseltine was frustrated at Kinnock's failure to exploit the moment and claimed that Thatcher's statement brought "the politics of the matter to an end" and that he would support the Government in the lobby.
Westland was bought out by Sikorsky.
- John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: Iron Lady v. 2 (2004) pp 483-98
- Letter to Sir John Cuckney (2 January, 1986)
- Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 432.
- Peter Jenkins, Mrs Thatcher's Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era (Pan, 1989), p. 192.
- Letter to Michael Heseltine MP (9 January, 1986)
- HC S: Westland plc (15 January, 1986)
- Jenkins, p. 199.
- John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 491.
- HC Stmnt: Westland plc (23 January, 1986)
- Leon Brittan to MT (24 January, 1986)
- HC S: Westland plc (27 January, 1986)
- Ronald Millar, A View from the Wings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993), p. 310.
- Alan Clark, Diaries: In Power, 1983–1992 (Phoenix, 2003), p. 135.
- Campbell, p. 496.
- John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003).
- Peter Jenkins, Mrs Thatcher's Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era (Pan, 1989).
- Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993).