The Westland Affair—Margaret Thatcher's Stumble and Recovery

The 1985–1986 Westland affair involved the rescue of Westland Helicopters, Britain’s last helicopter manufacturer, which by the mid-1980s had fallen onto hard times. U.S. helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky proposed a rescue plan which would effectively be a buy-out. This deal was supported by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but opposed by Minister of Defence Michael Heseltine, seen by many as Thatcher’s likely successor, who favoured a “European solution” involving a consortium of German, French, and Italian companies taking shares in the troubled firm.

The dispute created an acrimonious battle within Thatcher’s cabinet involving leaked documents, claims of misrepresentation, and Thatcher’s being accused of “anti-European” sentiment. In the end, Thatcher won, Heseltine resigned and returned to the back benches, but Thatcher’s reputation for invulnerability and control of her subordinates was damaged, contributing to Heseltine’s challenge to her leadership position in 1990 and her resignation, replacing the “Iron Lady” with “Grey Man” John Major.