Margaret Thatcher is without doubt a remarkable woman who as Prime Minister makes a huge indelible mark on British society that we are still feeling today. She is also very divisive as is most apparent in 1990 when a leadership contest is held against her by a stalking horse, Sir Antony Meyer. She calls a date quickly fully expecting her great rival Michael Heseltine to lead the assault but thinking it will only be a ‘fortnight’s agony’ and then she will be able to carry on as before.
Little does she realise the storm clouds rapidly gathering. Her long-time political colleague, Geoffrey Howe resigns on 1st November 1990 and delivers a thinly veiled attack on her in his resignation speech. In it he says ‘the conflict between the instinct of loyalty to the Prime Minister which is still very real and loyalty to what I perceive are the true interests of the nation had become intolerable. That is why I have resigned. The time has come for other to consider the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have wrestled for perhaps too long’.
This is an open call to arms as Thatcher is all too aware. The challenge worries her enough that to pacify her ambitious colleagues who have become wary of her promise to go ‘on and on’ she decides according to her memoirs to make “more frequent visits to that fount of gossip, the Commons tea room." She also institutes a series of meetings with Tory MPs where everyone is invited to "speak their mind". However she has such a dominant, aggressive aura most are too terrified of her to do so.
An air of complacency also exists amongst her supporters. When Alan Clark pays Peter Morrison, her parliamentary private secretary, for an afternoon visit to see how the campaign is going he finds him asleep in his room. "For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost," he observes. He feels she does not realise how precarious her position is due to poor advice from her sycophantic advisors. He calls it ‘the Bunker syndrome. Everyone round you is clicking their heels. The saluting sentries have polished boots and beautiful creased uniforms. But out there at the Front it’s all disintegrating. The soldiers are starving in tatters and makeshift bandages. Whole units are mutinous and in flight’.
Those who do actually fight her corner don’t help her either. Many take an abrasive stance. Norman Tebbit describes all who oppose her as suffering from ‘mad bullock disease’. Margaret Thatcher herself seems to make a poor judgement too. Instead of canvassing for MP support she goes to Paris for a meeting that basically celebrates the end of the Cold War. Many Conservative MP’s see this as contempt. As Conservative MP, Kenneth Baker puts it ‘The plaudits are abroad but the votes are back home’.
When she fails to get a clear victory in the first contest (she is short by four votes) her great rival, Michael Heseltine steps forward to challenge her in the second round. By now opinion has hardened against her. Norman Tebbit decides to take her round the Commons tearoom where she finds out how low she is now held in regard. ‘I had never experienced such an atmosphere before’ she notes. Repeatedly she hears the refrain ‘Michael has asked me two or three times for my vote already. This is the first time we have seen you’.
She knows that cabinet support is key so she organizes a series of one to one meetings with her cabinet members. With a good working majority in Parliament she hopes she will have the support of her colleagues. In public, she takes a steadfast view as she knows from her recollection of history that any news of her possible departure will undermine her authority. Thatcher recollects that ‘a complaint from Churchill, then Prime Minister, to his Chief Whip that talk of his resignation in the Parliamentary Party (he would shortly be succeeded by Anthony Eden) was undermining his authority. Without that authority, he could not be an effective Prime Minister.’
Michael Heseltine sees the situation differently. He feels ‘to anyone with the faintest knowledge of how Westminster politics work, her position was manifestly untenable. It says much for Mrs Thatcher’s capacity for self-delusion that at first she stubbornly refused to recognise this fact’. Her husband, Dennis see which way the wind blows and begs her not to continue saying ‘don’t go on love’ but to no avail.
The meetings take place in her House of Commons Room. What happens next knocks her back. ‘Almost to a man they used the same formula. This was that they themselves would back me, of course, but that regretfully they did not believe I could win.’ It is clear her own ministers have conspired against her beforehand to deliver a standard line and repeat it to her. Her position is untenable. Some of the men such as Ken Clarke are blunt that she needs to step aside. Others talk about the need for her to step down so that John Major can have a viable challenge against Michael Heseltine.
Distressed, betrayed and worn out, Thatcher has little left to give. As she puts it ‘what grieved me was the desertion of those I considered my friends and allies and the weasel words whereby they had transmitted their betrayal into frank advice and concern for my fate… treachery with a smile on its face’.
Kenneth Clarke has a different take on this ‘desertion’. For him ‘as Prime Ministers go, she was a good butcher; that was part of her strength. But she could not complain when she was butchered in turn. She had only gained the leadership in the first place by boldly challenging Ted Heath when all his other colleagues were restrained by loyalty. She had lived by the sword and as always likely to perish by the sword’.
To give herself some respite and chance to gather her thoughts she decides to sleep on the matter. It makes no difference though and the next morning she decides to resign. She prepares a statement for her Cabinet Ministers, one for the media and makes the other necessary arrangements to leave.
On the day of reckoning, 28th November 1990 Thatcher resigns. She packs her belongings with her husband Dennis and walks out of Number 10 Downing Street to give one last farewell speech before huge throngs of reporters. Before large crowds the whole enormity and sudden turn of events became too much for her. Unable to control her emotions she can not stop tears rolling down her cheek.
She still musters some defiance "We're leaving Downing Street for the last time after eleven-and-a-half wonderful years and we're happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came here". She also gives her support to her successor. "Now it's time for a new chapter to open and I wish John Major all the luck in the world". She then goes to see the Queen to confirm her departure. Just fifteen minutes later, her successor John Major replaces her at the Queen’s residence at Buckingham Palace to become the new Prime Minister.
The once proud and seemingly unstoppable leader who at one time had promised to go ‘on and on’ leaves and brings about the end of a tumultuous and seminal era in British history. It has become defined and personified by her style of leadership so much so people still talk about the 1980’s as the decade of Thatcherism.