25 years ago this week the Conservative Party were in the process of electing a new leader after Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister for over 11 years, stood down. The story of Thatcher’s resignation has long been a controversial one within the Conservative Party, seen by some as an ‘assassination’ and by many as high political drama. This is reflected in many of our oral history project interviews with former MPs. Thatcher’s premiership is mentioned by almost all of those who were MPs at the time, but in this post we’ll concentrate on some of the reactions to the downfall of Britain’s only female Prime Minister to date.
Thatcher remains a controversial figure in British politics, and this is no less true in our interviews with former Conservative MPs. Whilst many were great admirers, a number remember that by 1990 they had become alienated by her policies (in particular the attempts to introduce the Community Charge, better known as the poll tax) and what they felt was an increasingly arrogant leadership style. For example, Sir Philip Goodhart, MP for Beckenham, remembers that he was ‘violently opposed’ to the poll tax, and Michael Irvine, Ipswich MP between 1987 and 1992, felt that he had been ‘correct’ in opposing the policy and had the support of his local Conservative party in doing so. For David Nicholson, MP for Taunton, his decision to vote against Thatcher combined misgivings about the poll tax, the government’s growing unpopularity and her leadership style, as he explains in this clip:
The mechanics of Thatcher’s downfall have been well recorded. Commentators have generally agreed that the crisis began with Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation from the cabinet and his speech in the Commons attacking the Prime Minister; in particular his call for others to act: ‘The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.’ In his interview with us, Howe stated he was ‘sad’ to have made the speech, but felt he had ‘no alternative’. This then led to a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine.
For several of our interviewees, Thatcher’s actions during this period only made matters worse. She has since been criticised for not taking the challenge seriously and for deciding to attend a European Summit as normal on the day of the vote. For David Mudd, MP Falmouth and Camborne, who admitted it was a ‘relief’ when Thatcher was challenged, he was still surprised at the manner of the change:
It came as no particular shock to me that Margaret was ousted, I was surprised though, that it happened the way that it did. The fact that here was the government, or here was the Prime Minister, facing a crisis, and she swans off to Paris. It just didn’t make sense.
Thatcher’s failure to win enough support in this first ballot to end the contest meant that on her return to London cabinet support for her leadership collapsed. On 22 November she announced that she would step down, and John Major subsequently won the leadership election.
Even amongst our interviewees who had wanted Thatcher to step down, many felt that the process itself was – in the worlds of the Cornish MP Sir Robert Hicks – ‘a very sad reflection on what she had achieved’. Dame Marion Roe, MP for Broxbourne, described the period as ‘very emotional’, whilst the MP for Batley and Spen Elizabeth Peacock was full of admiration for Thatcher as she returned to the Commons the week after her resignation, as she explains in this clip: