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Former UK Treasury chief Geoffrey Howe dies at 88

Geoffrey Howe during Laura Parker Bowles and Harry Lopes - Wedding at St Cyriac's Church in Lacock, Great Britain.
Mike Marsland | WireImage | Getty Images

Former British Treasury chief Geoffrey Howe, a prominent figure in Margaret Thatcher's government who helped bring about her downfall after they parted ways over policy toward Europe, has died at 88.

Howe died suddenly of a suspected heart attack late Friday at his home in Warwickshire, north of London, after returning from a jazz concert with his wife Elspeth, his family said Saturday.

Prime Minister David Cameron, also a Conservative, called Howe "the quiet hero of the first Thatcher government" who had shown "huge courage and resolve" in helping save the floundering British economy.

Howe took the helm at Treasury when Thatcher came to power in 1979 and helped implement the free-market policies favored by the new prime minister. Income tax rates were lowered and currency exchange controls were lifted.

Public spending was cut and other unpopular measures, including a rise in gasoline tax, were implemented during his tenure.

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Howe moved on to become foreign secretary in 1983. He played a key role in the negotiations with the Chinese government over the future of Hong Kong, and eventually became deputy prime minister, but his relations with Thatcher had deteriorated while he ran the Foreign Office, primarily because of disagreements over policy toward Europe.

They also seemed to have tired of each other's style after a long period of harmony that had served both well.

Howe played an important role in Thatcher's fall from power. He resigned in November 1990, and used his departure speech to challenge her fitness to continue serving as party leader. He called on Conservatives to reconsider their backing for Thatcher, who was seen as increasingly imperious after being in power for more than a decade.

He used a famous cricket comparison that has since become part of Britain's political lexicon to describe Thatcher's tactics.

"It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain," he declared.

Thatcher resigned three weeks later after losing the Conservatives' backing. Howe's stunning public rebuke was seen as a turning point in her bid to remain in office.

Cameron, who today follows many of the same economic policies brought in by Thatcher, said Howe played a vital role by reducing borrowing, cutting tax rates, and taming inflation.

"Lifting exchange controls may seem obvious now, but it was revolutionary back then," the prime minister.

Howe was a successful lawyer whose first two campaigns for a seat in Parliament ended in defeat. He received a knighthood in 1970 and was a member of the House of Lords.