Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government

The Westland affair was a bitter disagreement within Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet over how to support Great Britain’s ailing Westland helicopter company. Thatcher and Leon Brittan, minister for trade and industry, wanted to see a takeover by the American company Sikorsky, while Defence Minister Michael Heseltine wanted to pursue a European option. In the tussle, cabinet disunity led to a leak of the conflict, Heseltine’s and Brittan’s resignations, and an enquiry in which the government had to defend its integrity.

Summary of Event

Westland Aircraft Limited, a helicopter company located in Yeovil, Somerset, England, was a midsize British manufacturer, with a turnover of some $600 million annually during the 1980’s. Unlike the rest of the British aircraft industry, Westland had not been nationalized by a previous Labour government and remained Britain’s only maker of helicopters. During the mid-1980’s, Westland began to encounter financial difficulties following a lack of orders from the British military. So the company turned to the British government for help in April, 1985, when financier Alan Bristow put in a bid for the manufacturer. He wanted a write-off of government aid due for repayment and assurance of orders, if not from Britain, then from India with British aid. [kw]Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government (1985-1986)
[kw]Thatcher’s Government, Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister (1985-1986)
Westland Aircraft
Thatcher, Margaret
[p]Thatcher, Margaret;and Westland Aircraft[Westland Aircraft]
Thatcher, Margaret
Heseltine, Michael
Brittan, Leon
Westland Aircraft
Thatcher, Margaret
[p]Thatcher, Margaret;and Westland Aircraft[Westland Aircraft]
Thatcher, Margaret
Heseltine, Michael
Brittan, Leon
[g]Europe;1985-1986: Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government[02130]
[g]England;1985-1986: Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government[02130]
[c]Government;1985-1986: Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government[02130]
[c]Politics;1985-1986: Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government[02130]
[c]Space and aviation;1985-1986: Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government[02130]
[c]Business;1985-1986: Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government[02130]
[c]Trade and commerce;1985-1986: Westland Affair Shakes Prime Minister Thatcher’s Government[02130]
Armstrong, Robert

Former British defence secretary Michael Heseltine in London in January, 1986.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the time, the issue was not a major one, commercially or politically. The government of Margaret Thatcher, on the whole, took a hard line on ailing industries, but defense needs suggested the wisdom of keeping a British-based company running. In the end, the bid was unsuccessful but a new board of directors was installed under the chairship of Sir John Cuckney. On October 4, the newly appointed minister for the Department of Trade and Industry, Leon Brittan, reported the need for a new minority shareholder to inject more capital into the company. The American helicopter giant, Sikorsky, was willing to become the minority shareholder, and the Westland board agreed. Sikorsky already had been allowing Westland to build some of its patents.

At this stage, Michael Heseltine, the ambitious and energetic minister of defence, began to make his views known that a European future, rather than an American one, was necessary for Westland. From 1978 there had been an agreement among some European countries that, where possible, helicopter purchases should be kept to European manufacturers. Heseltine gathered the national armament directors of Germany, France, and Italy to get them to say that if Westland moved into American hands, it would not be possible to deal with the company in the future. At the same time, Heseltine was actively trying to put together a rescue package among European companies for Westland. By this time, Westland directors were actively proposing a takeover by Sikorsky.

By December, 1985, the differences between Brittan and Heseltine entered into serious departmental rivalry, and Prime Minister Thatcher had to intervene. She called a series of three meetings, the first two fairly informal, the third, held December 9, a fuller meeting of involved ministers. It was decided to keep the European option open until Friday, December 13. A firm decision would have to be taken at this meeting to maintain confidence in the company because Westland’s annual accounts were to be published two days before the ministers met.

Accounts of this last meeting differed between Heseltine and Thatcher. Heseltine was expecting one further meeting; Thatcher was not and did not call one. The deadline passed without an agreed rescue bid from the Europeans. However, Heseltine continued to act as though everything was still negotiable. Thatcher wrote to Cuckney to say that the government would continue to see Westland as a British company and do its best to protect the company.

Though Heseltine seemed to be flouting the rules of collective cabinet decision-making, nothing was done to stop him. It could be that Thatcher feared his wide popularity within the Conservative Party. It was decided in early 1986 to ask one of the leading government lawyers, the solicitor-general Christopher Mayhew, to give a legal opinion as to Heseltine’s contention that Westland would lose all European business. Mayhew’s carefully worded letter suggested that there were “material inaccuracies” in Heseltine’s statements. The letter was almost immediately leaked by Brittan’s department, probably with the connivance of the prime minister’s office. The national press seized on the scandal, accusing Heseltine of lying.

At the cabinet meeting of January 9, the prime minister told members that great damage was being done to the government by the leak of the letter, and that in the future all communications about Westland must be cleared through her office before being circulated. By now, it seems Heseltine had had enough; he promptly resigned and walked out, issuing a long and carefully worded statement a few hours later.

The matter did not stop there, however. Mayhew’s senior in government, Attorney General Michael Havers, demanded an enquiry into the leak, which had the confidentiality of a legal document as well as being a leak of one minister against another. The enquiry was conducted by Robert Armstrong, the senior civil servant in the cabinet office. He concluded that Brittan had indeed authorized the leak. In the parliamentary debates that followed, Thatcher had to defend Brittan and herself. While seeing off the threat to her own position by claiming ignorance on the one hand, and making some apologies on the other, the Conservative backbenchers saw the need for Brittan to resign. Thatcher “reluctantly” accepted his resignation.


The Westland company was taken over by Sikorsky and managed to do well. However, Thatcher lost her reputation for straight and honest dealing as prime minister, and grave fault lines in her cabinet came to light. Her cabinet style also was scrutinized. A further review by the all-party Parliamentary Defence Committee grilled Armstrong, and the integrity of the civil service also come under suspicion. However, it was felt that the Labour opposition had lost a major opportunity in the parliamentary debate, when its leader, Neil Kinnock, made a blustering and ineffective attack on Thatcher, which did no more than reveal the insignificance of the Westland decision. Brittan, though, was unable to return to the cabinet and eventually ended his political career as a commissioner in Brussels, Belgium, for the European Union.

In the long term, Thatcher created an independent and vocal critic of her policies. Heseltine’s politics were more akin to Thatcher’s predecessor, Edward Heath, in its desire for government intervention. In the end he became a rival for her post. During the 1990 contest for leadership of the party, it was Heseltine who emerged as her chief rival at first, and his support in the first round of voting was the main cause of her resignation as party leader. In fact, Heseltine was unable to increase his support and John Major Major, John became the new leader. However, Heseltine did become deputy prime minster during the later stages of the Major ministry. Westland Aircraft
Thatcher, Margaret
[p]Thatcher, Margaret;and Westland Aircraft[Westland Aircraft]
Thatcher, Margaret
Heseltine, Michael
Brittan, Leon

Further Reading

  • Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Fourth Report from the Defence Committee, 23 July, 1986. London: Author, 1986. A full account of one of the most revealing enquiries into misconduct produced by an all-party select committee.
  • Heseltine, Michael. Life in the Jungle: An Autobiography, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2000. Contains Heseltine’s account of the affair in considerable detail.
  • Linklater, Magnus, and David Leigh. Not with Honour. London: Sphere, 1986. A thorough account of the affair produced shortly after the scandal subsided. Shows some signs of haste.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years, 1979-1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Thatcher’s account of the affair, which, of course, does no favors to Michael Heseltine.
  • Uttley, Matthew R. H. Westland and the British Helicopter Industry, 1945-1960: Licensed Production Versus Indigenous Innovation. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2001. Argues that Westland succeeded in the postwar years because it focused on the licensed production of helicopter technology developed in the United States, such as that by Sikorsky.
  • Young, Hugo. The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989. Of all the biographies and autobiographies, this perhaps gives the most balanced account of the affair, taken from personal interviews with those involved.

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