• U.S.

Britain Suspicious Leak

4 minute read
Hunter R. Clark

Only a month ago, the fate of Westland, a financially troubled helicopter manufacturer, seemed a relatively minor matter, principally of interest to British businessmen. Now it has mushroomed into the most damaging political scandal to face Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher since she took office in 1979. Three weeks ago, Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s Defense Minister, stormed out of a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street and quit over the government’s handling of what has become known as “the Westland affair.” Last week the controversy claimed another victim: Trade and Industry Minister Leon Brittan, a friend and political ally of Thatcher’s, who was forced to resign from the government.

As the scandal gathered force, the Prime Minister herself was coming under increased fire for alleged duplicitous conduct in the controversy. With a 139- member majority in the House of Commons, Thatcher is in little danger of being forced from office, but her credibility and her style of governing were being questioned as never before. Said a senior member of her Conservative Party: “There is a nasty smell about this whole business.”

The affair has revolved around two rival rescue bids for Westland, an ailing firm that is Britain’s only helicopter maker. One came from a West European consortium of defense contractors, including British Aerospace; the other was made by Sikorsky, a division of the U.S. conglomerate United Technologies. Defense Minister Heseltine supported the European bid, arguing that it alone would keep helicopter technology in Britain. Thatcher maintained that she was neutral on the competing rescue plans, but Heseltine accused her of favoring the U.S. offer and resigned after an icy confrontation.

At the heart of the controversy last week was the question of whether Thatcher was involved in leaking to the press a letter about the two bids. That letter, dated Jan. 6, was sent by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain’s Solicitor-General, to Heseltine. In it, Mayhew urged Heseltine to correct “material inaccuracies” in his version of the ongoing battle. These had been contained in an earlier letter from the then Defense Minister to a representative of the European consortium.

About an hour before the Westland board was to recommend acceptance of the Sikorsky bid to its shareholders, excerpts from the Mayhew letter were leaked to the press. Thatcher’s critics have charged that this was done to discredit Heseltine in his role as champion of the Europeans.

An investigation into the leak by Thatcher’s Cabinet secretary and head of the domestic civil service, Sir Robert Armstrong, showed that it had originated in the Prime Minister’s own office. Faced with this damaging evidence, Thatcher last week told the House that it was Brittan’s staff at the Trade and Industry Ministry that had actually leaked the letter. The investigation, she explained, had shown that the ministry aides “acted in good faith in the knowledge that they had the authority (of Brittan) and cover from my office for proceeding.” As for her personal involvement, Thatcher insisted that she had not been consulted by her senior staff members and that she had learned the full facts only after Armstrong’s investigation.

That claim left both Tories and opposition Labor M.P.s appalled and incredulous. Said one Tory ex-Minister: “Anyone who knows how British government works would find it very difficult to believe that nearly three weeks would pass without her private office telling her what they had approved on her behalf.”

The Conservatives rallied around their embattled Prime Minister, but the Tory backbenchers overwhelmingly demanded Brittan’s ouster. They were particularly dismayed at the lack of political judgment he had displayed in the whole affair. Cranley Onslow, a leader of the group, met with Brittan and said, “You must know where your duty lies.” The Minister then dutifully penned his resignation. Trumpeted the Times of London in a headline the following day: GOVERNMENT SHAKEN AT PUBLIC HUMILIATION.

Few believe, however, that Brittan’s resignation will end the questions about Thatcher’s role in the affair. An emergency parliamentary debate is scheduled this week on the Westland controversy. Labor Leader Neil Kinnock gave the Prime Minister a taste of the attacks she can expect when he called the leak the action of a government “not just rotten to the core but rotten from the core.” Thatcher is certain to respond in kind.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com