Margaret Thatcher neglected her campaign to be re-elected as Tory leader, and so was toppled as prime minister
In 1987 Margaret Thatcher won her third successive general election – a feat unrivalled since Lord Liverpool’s premiership in the early 19th century.
By 1990 only Salisbury and Gladstone in modern British politics had spent longer in 10 Downing Street but they required three and four separate premierships respectively to do so.
Yet no sooner had she won her third general election than she started experiencing unrest within the party on a variety of issues: the unpopularity of the poll tax, the resignation of Chancellor Nigel Lawson over exchange-rate policy, europhile opposition to her hostility to ever-closer European integration, the threat of economic recession, by-election defeats, accusations that she was out of touch and fears that the party would lose the next general election with her at the helm (a vital consideration to Conservative MPs).
In November 1989 Sir Anthony Meyer, an obscure europhile backbencher, mounted a leadership challenge.
Although derided as ‘a stalking donkey’, he succeeded in wounding Mrs Thatcher by securing 33 votes. These votes, combined with 24 spoiled votes and three abstentions, indicated a sizeable minority of Conservative MPs (16%) were dissatisfied with her leadership.
The real challenge came a year later and was triggered by Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation, ostensibly over Europe, on November 1 1990.
Perhaps Mrs Thatcher had been ‘beastly’ towards her deputy prime minister once too often, possibly over draft legislation which was not ready. In his resignation speech 12 days later he mounted a devastating attack on the prime minister.
Hitherto mocked as ‘Mogadon Man’ (Mogadon is a medication prescribed for insomnia), Sir Geoffrey electrified the Commons by insisting she was wrong over Europe and, deploying a cricketing analogy, accused her of sending her ministers ‘to bat for Britain … only to find that the bats have been broken by the team captain’.
He concluded by inviting ‘others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long’.
Some suspected the formidable Elspeth Howe of being the author of the speech. Lady Howe never liked Mrs Thatcher and the feeling was reciprocated.
Mrs Thatcher believed that Sir Geoffrey was incapable of writing such a speech and blamed Peter Jenkins of the Independent. Actually it seems Sir Geoffrey drafted and redrafted it himself without assistance from ‘Lady Macbeth’.
The speech paved the way for Michael Heseltine, an ambitious and disgruntled former minister of defence (who had resigned in 1986), a ‘Wet’ and a Europhile, to announce his candidature for the party leadership.
Mrs Thatcher told The Times that he was ‘a socialist at heart’ and that she would beat him.
According to the party’s rules in order to beat Heseltine, Mrs Thatcher had to win a clear majority of the parliamentary party and to be 15% ahead of him in votes cast.
Mrs Thatcher probably could have won but she may not have realised until it was too late that she was in a serious ‘jam’. If she had, surely she would have paid closer attention to the election timetable and could have arranged to be in London throughout the contest rather spending a day in Northern Ireland and attending the Fontainebleau summit before the first ballot on November 20 1990.
Things might have been different if she had put together a proper team to manage her campaign.
Tristan Garel-Jones had masterminded her beneath-the-radar campaign against Sir Anthony Meyer and would have done so again had he been asked. Garel-Jones and Richard Ryder were eventually asked on November 21 by John Wakeham but by that stage it was too late.
The exact composition of her campaign remains unclear and therein lies the problem.
Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame is attributed to the lethargy of Sir Peter Morrison, her Principal Private Secretary (PPS).
If Ian Gow, her PPS seven years earlier, had been at her side, he would have moved heaven and earth on her behalf but he had been murdered by the IRA at the end of July.
In the first round of voting Mrs Thatcher secured an overall majority but failed to secure the 15% margin (with 372 MPs voting, she was four votes short of the required majority of 56).
Therefore a second ballot was required. In Paris Mrs Thatcher announced: ‘I fight on, I fight to win.’
However after a series of disappointing individual meetings with cabinet ministers, perhaps none more so than that with the hitherto ultra-Thatcherite Peter Lilley, on the evening of November 21, she told the cabinet the following morning of her intention to resign.
That afternoon Mrs Thatcher mounted a bravura performance in debating a ‘No Confidence motion’ tabled by Labour.
Even Paddy Ashdown was moved to observe: ‘The Tories must be feeling they have lost their greatest asset. They have murdered Caesar and will, I imagine, soon be looking around for a Brutus.’
The second ballot took place on November 27 with John Major, who was Mrs Thatcher’s preferred candidate and acknowledged heir, and Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, having entered the fray. Major polled 185 votes, Heseltine 131 and Hurd 56.
Although Major was two short of victory, both Heseltine and Hurd withdrew in his favour.
Major had been briefly both chancellor of the exchequer and foreign secretary but was still an unknown quantity.
As his father had been a circus acrobat, he was the butt of jokes about him being the only boy to ever run away from the circus to become an accountant.
Within weeks Mrs Thatcher was privately expressing dissatisfaction with her successor. Major was not ‘a true believer’ and it was unclear what, if anything, he did believe. Why she could have ever imagined Major was ‘one of us’ remains a mystery.
Was Mrs Thatcher the victim of ‘a perfect storm’ or a plot?
Arthur Balfour’s observation may be apposite: ‘It is not a principle of the Conservative Party to stab its leaders in the back, but I must confess that it often appears to be a practice.’
That was his experience in 1911 and Austen Chamberlain’s in 1922.
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