In an uncomfortable coincidence for current Prime Minister Theresa May, Britain’s first woman PM, Margaret Thatcher, began to lose her iron grip on power 28 years ago today.
On November 20th, 1990, Mrs Thatcher failed to win outright victory in a contest for ongoing leadership of the Conservative Party against challenger and former Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine. With her position increasingly untenable, she would stand down as Prime Minister just two days later, bringing an end to her 11 years in office.
Mrs Thatcher had survived previous leadership challenges from within her own party, but her implacable style continued to alienate even her closest colleagues. The leadership challenge was triggered when Deputy Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned from the Cabinet and, in his resignation speech, was highly critical of Mrs Thatcher’s methods. On top of that, her personal popularity with the public was continuing to fall below that of the party she led, suggesting it might be time for a new leader.
Michael Heseltine’s challenge did not immediately unseat her. She won 204 of the 372 votes available from Conservative MPs, with 152 voting for Mr Heseltine and 16 abstaining. But that still left Mrs Thatcher four votes short of the 56 majority she needed and meant the leadership contest would go to a second round. It was encouraging for those opposing her and could persuade some of her supporters to switch sides or previous abstainers to opt for Mr Heseltine.
On news of the result, Mrs Thatcher’s supporters were angry the contest would now be prolonged for another week and criticised the system which allowed for successive leadership challenges in the first place. In contrast, Mr Heseltine’s supporters were confident he would pick up enough extra support to win on the second ballot.
Mrs Thatcher was out of the country, attending a European security summit in Paris, when the results of the first ballot were announced. Although she would face intense pressure to step down after failing to win the majority she needed, her first instinct was to fight on. Just minutes after the results were made public, she told reporters: “I am naturally very pleased that I got more than half the parliamentary party and disappointed that it’s not quite enough to win on the first ballot. So I confirm that it is my intention to let my name go forward for the second ballot.”
Mr Heseltine confirmed he too would press on with his challenge, ignoring appeals to abandon it for the good of the party. Labour attempted to capitalise on the crisis by tabling a motion of no confidence in the Conservative government and calling for an immediate general election.
Despite her initial reaction, Mrs Thatcher soon realised she was fighting an uphill battle. On her return to Downing Street she held a series of Cabinet meetings in which it was spelt out to her that many of those who supported her in the first ballot might not do so in the second. In the end she was persuaded to go, announcing her decision to step down as Prime Minister two days later.
It was not Michael Heseltine who succeeded her in the top job though, but her former Chancellor and supporter John Major. He won the leadership contest by a clear margin just five days after her resignation and began his time in office by praising his predecessor. Mrs Thatcher remained a force to be reckoned with in Westminster, initially as a backbench MP in the Commons and later in the House of Lords, until ill health finally forced her retirement from public life.
Britain’s second woman Prime Minister and current incumbent Theresa May is currently trying to weather a challenge to her leadership over her controversial Brexit plan. If enough letters of no confidence in her leadership are submitted by Conservative MPs in the next few days, it will trigger a leadership contest, but triggering it and winning it are not the same thing.