What if Thatcher won the 1990 leadership challenge?

23 November 2020

5:40 AM

23 November 2020

5:40 AM

Thirty years ago today, Margaret Thatcher was in 10 Downing Street. For almost eleven and a half years, it had been her home and her headquarters. There, she had planned the campaigns which transformed her country, and earned her the right to be ranked with Churchill. He, the greatest war leader: she, the greatest domestic one. But on 23 November 1990, everything was different. The previous day, she had resigned the Leadership of her party. Although she would still be Prime Minister for a few days, until the Tories had chosen a replacement, her principal task in that vestigial interlude was to pack up her possessions and prepare to move out. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Wolsey, it was: ‘A short farewell to all her greatness.’

Although the story of her departure has often been told elsewhere, there is a parallel with Churchill. In 1945, a large majority of his fellow-countrymen believed that he was the greatest living Englishman: possibly the greatest of all time. Even so, the voters turned him out. With peace, they had different priorities, and they did not think that Churchill was the right man to organise the peace dividend. By 1990, Margret Thatcher had defeated a phalanx of foes, yet the country was still embattled. A lot of her own backbenchers wanted a quieter life. Many of them also felt neglected. But she did not see why she should have to stoop to conquer. They would have preferred it if she had stopped to listen.

Under the Tories’ rules, to succeed on the first ballot, a sitting leader would have to win an absolute majority, plus a further 15 per cent of the votes of all sitting Tory MPs. Although she beat Michael Heseltine by 52, she fell four votes short of the required margin. Her position crumbled, and with it, her leadership.

Yet there could easily have been a different outcome. Michael Heseltine had toppled her: he was still some way short of having the votes to succeed her. A man of strong emotions, he had come to detest Mrs Thatcher. He was also buoyed up by the result. So he was too carried away for cold-eyed calculation, and the Heseltine team was not well-stocked with political strategists. If it had been, one of them might have said: ‘We don’t have the votes. Press ahead now, and you’ll be setting everything up for John Major. Why not withdraw from the contest, saying that even if the rules would allow you to carry on, you are not going to indulge in pedantry over four votes. Do that, she will be mortally wounded and you’ll be PM in a year’s time.’

A plausible outcome. But what about the Gulf War?

That conflict was imminent. Determined to do everything to encourage national unity, John Major, the new PM, was always courteous to Neil Kinnock, the leader of the opposition. There were regular briefings on Privy Councillor terms. Mr Kinnock was given all the access that he could have reasonably expected. It worked. Although Roy Hattersley, Labour’s deputy leader, was uneasy about the war, the leadership stayed on side.

Suppose Mrs Thatcher had still been in charge. She would have been told that it was important to be polite to Mr Kinnock and she would have agreed. Politeness would have reigned for as long as five minutes. He loathed her. She despised him. In no time at all, she would have been kicking sand in his face.

Labour would have broken ranks, with the help of the BBC. Night after night, Kinnock and Hattersley plus Ted Heath and Denis Healey would have accused the PM of plunging into a reckless adventure. To save her own sinking premiership, she was prepared to risk a nuclear winter and the destruction on the Middle East’s oil fields.

This would have alarmed the public. Margaret Thatcher might have broken new records for prime ministerial unpopularity. But we know the outcome. The war took just one hundred hours. The critics would have been exposed, as guilty of hysterical fabrications. Then, Mrs Thatcher might well have turned to the electorate and said: ‘Right. Three weeks on Thursday. Kinnock or me?’ Many doubtful voters might well have concluded that you cannot send a boy to do a woman’s job.

It is all ‘what if’. Margaret Thatcher would have had to retire sometime, yet her many virtues did not include resignation. Still, she could have used another two years to establish John Major as her chosen successor. As for Michael Heseltine, he was and would have remained too divisive. He had tried to assassinate her and it is hard for the man who reached for the dagger ever to receive the crown. The speculations will be endless. But there is one possible conclusion. Such a remarkable leader did not deserve to lose office because of four measly votes.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments