The Iron lady's downfall came faster than she had thought possible
Today is the anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, one of the most engrossing moments of high politics in the twentieth century. After Thatcher announced the UK would veto an EU treaty for monetary union, Geoffrey Howe realised she would make Europe an issue at the next election, “unless she is resisted.” In those days, the leadership could only be contested annually, in November. Howe had to move fast.
His resignation speech is famous. His departure was huge news. He was the last survivor of her first cabinet. Mutiny rumbled. MPs stopped going to divisions. Heseltine stalked her openly, quickly standing as a candidate. Europe was the trigger, but electability was the issue. As early as February, Ian Gow (fearful of persistent inflation, depressed poll numbers, and an expected election in 1991) had warned the diarist MP Alan Clark that Thatcher would be opposed. She had been challenged the year before, by Anthony Meyer, who failed to interest many colleagues in deposing her. This year, said Gow, many more were interested. Clark recorded rumours of 100 MPs prepared to vote against her in April.
More concerned with historic events than domestic affairs, Thatcher went to a summit in Paris during the first ballot. While she was busy ending the Cold War, her leadership campaign was being fumbled by Peter Morrison, who sent a secretary out to buy vodka in the middle of meetings where he was supposed to be tallying which MPs had been approached to vote for the Lady.
She won that vote — but her margin was too small to avoid a second ballot. She was four votes short. Clark despaired about finding Morrison asleep mid-afternoon the day before. “For want of a nail the kingdom was lost.” Thatcher was due at the ballet that night in Paris: Mitterrand delayed the performance by an hour while she spoke to the press. A cabal met the next evening, including five cabinet ministers, to debate supporting Hurd or Major in the second ballot. Clark was the only one who thought she should stay. He warned Thatcher about her position (via Charles Powell: Peter Morrison wouldn’t put his call through) but it was no good.
Thatcher realised too late her campaign had been mismanaged. By the time of her first visit to the Commons tea room, Heseltine had schmoozed everyone two or three times. Tebbit thought one-to-one meetings with the cabinet would win them round. They didn’t. John Major had paused when she asked him to renominate her for the second round. Kenneth Clarke threatened to resign if she went through to the second ballot. The tide was running out. She resigned the next morning.
Ever since Thatcher, Tory leaders have been picked up like found pennies and dropped like hot bricks. Boris was chosen as an election winner. But now his poll numbers are down, his future is up for speculation. He’d better watch out. It’s much easier to challenge a Tory leader these days. And it can happen year round.