LONDON -- The Thatcher government was stunned last night by the shock resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Howe, a former foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer.
He was the last remaining member of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's original 1979 Cabinet and was most recently leader of the ruling Conservatives in the House of Commons.
The issue in the elder statesman's sudden departure was his increasingly open conflict with Mrs. Thatcher over the government's policy toward European political and economic union.
Sir Geoffrey, 63, was more enthusiastic about moves to increase cooperation between the 12 members of the European Community than was Mrs. Thatcher, who accepted his resignation "more in sadness than in anger."
He was demoted from the Foreign Office to parliamentary leadership last year because of the basic policy difference.
Mrs. Thatcher was alone among European leaders last weekend at a summit in Rome in voting against an Italian-proposed timetable for creating a single European currency and a European central bank. Even as she did so, Sir Geoffrey went on television to hint that the government's opposition might not be permanent.
After she returned from Rome, Mrs. Thatcher publicly withheld her outright support for Sir Geoffrey when pressed to express it by Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Sir Geoffrey told Mrs. Thatcher in his letter of resignation that he was not a "Euro-idealist" or federalist but that he could no longer share her views on Europe. He warned that Britain risked being left behind in the moves toward European unity and said that her "mood will make it more difficult for Britain in the European debate."
Accepting his resignation with "regret," Mrs. Thatcher questioned whether their differences were as great as he suggested.
Sir Geoffrey now joins former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson and former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, who both resigned over the European issue, on the back benches.