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By Ben Guerin
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“We can be ruthless if we need to be” – does the downfall of Thatcher hold lessons for Boris Johnson?

Margaret Thatcher outside Number Ten after announcing her resignation | PA Images

10 min read

In November 1990 Margaret Thatcher was dramatically brought down by her party; betrayed, in her mind, by her former allies. Thirty years on, could there be an ominous warning for the latest Tory Prime Minister in the ruthlessness of a party where gratitude for winning the last election always comes second to the ability to win the next one?

It may rank as Britain’s most dramatic political story since the Second World War, but the three decades since the Conservatives bundled their triple election-winning Prime Minister out of office in November 1990 mean that, for many people, Margaret Thatcher is now recalled more as a historical figure alongside Lloyd George, Attlee, even Churchill… rather than the force of nature who dominated British politics for a decade and whose stunning fall from power split her party, inflicting wounds some say have yet to heal, 30 years on.

The newly-ennobled Charles Moore, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, writes in the final volume of his authorised biography of Mrs Thatcher, that: "Thirty years on, as it struggled with Brexit the Conservative Party had still not recovered from the feelings engendered by the political assassination of its most successful peacetime leader.”

It’s a judgement that still provokes conflicting views from those who lived through those momentous years. Only a handful of today’s Tory MPs were there in 1990, while no-one who’s under 50 was old enough to vote for or against Margaret Thatcher. Yet with interest in our first woman Prime Minister being rekindled for a whole new generation through her fictional portrayal in the latest series of The Crown on Netflix, it seems an anniversary worth marking, to ask what went wrong, but also whether the Tory Party has finally moved on. And in the midst of another political maelstrom, could there be an ominous warning for the latest Conservative Prime Minister in the manifest ruthlessness of a party where gratitude for winning the last election always comes second to the ability to win the next one?

As Mrs Thatcher’s last party chairman, Kenneth (now Lord) Baker puts it: “Basically, the Tory Party likes winning elections. The lesson is don't count on Tory MPs backing you whatever happens.”

One former Prime Minister who knows this to her cost is Theresa May. She tells me she has always felt proud that it’s the Conservative Party that has elected two female Prime Ministers, and said Margaret Thatcher’s achievement in challenging the status quo made it easier for others to follow. “Her legacy lives on, not just in all she achieved – and she was a formidable leader – but in showing generations of women that politics was a world where women, not just men, could succeed,” she says. 

I don't think the Conservative Party ever succeeded in healing some of the rifts and bitterness that her fall excited

And what success it was: Thatcher had seen off her old boss, Ted Heath; driven Argentina out of the Falklands; humbled the miners; and transformed trade union laws. She’d sold off council houses, privatised the utilities, beaten Labour in three elections, and helped win the Cold War. Yet by 1990, she seemed suddenly vulnerable. As a BBC political correspondent at the time, I reported on what many of her supporters condemned as a political coup, a virtual assassination in broad daylight.

The extraordinary resignation speech of her former political soulmate, Sir Geoffrey Howe, may have focused on differences over Europe but it was the hugely unpopular flat-rate poll tax that exercised many backbench Tory MPs. That and the presence of the charismatic pro-European Michael Heseltine, prowling the backbenches as a potential King Across The Water since his dramatic Cabinet walkout in a row over the fate of the British helicopter firm, Westland. Now – nearly five years later – he finally became, in his own words to me this week, “the guy who wielded the knife”.

Fighting her third general election in 1987, Thatcher had unsettled many Tories by telling the BBC she hoped to “go on and on”. Lord Baker tried, unsuccessfully, to warn her: “Politicians, in my experience, all hang on too long, including Margaret.” His successor as Conservative chairman, Chris (now Lord) Patten puts it more bluntly: “The main lesson is that after eight, nine, certainly 10 years most Prime Ministers and party leaders should recognise it is time to retire, go for long walks in the country, and read good books!”

Thatcher was not much of a reader. And her increasing stridency and impatience with Cabinet colleagues was coupled with a growing euroscepticism. An initial leadership challenge in 1989 by a stalking horse candidate, the quixotic pro-European Sir Anthony Meyer, was seen off, but 60 Conservative MPs failed to back Thatcher, setting alarm bells ringing. The Iron Lady ignored the warning, and also the growing protests over the cost and perceived unfairness of the new poll tax, even in true-blue Kent and Surrey, and rioting in central London. In October 1990, Thatcher stepped up her increasingly strident anti-European rhetoric in the Commons, railing “No no no!!” against the goal of ‘ever-closer union’. Howe resigned from the Cabinet two days later.

His resignation statement in the Commons has entered the realms of political myth… as ‘a Shakespearian tragedy’, ‘sheer revenge’ or, in Mrs Thatcher’s own words, ‘bile and treachery’. It stunned those of us who watched it – from the floor of the Commons or the Press Gallery high above – by its venom and its demolition of Mrs Thatcher’s European policy, which Howe called “a nightmare image… of a continent teeming with ill-intentioned people scheming to extinguish democracy”... not to mention those notorious broken cricket bats!

Ken (now Lord) Clarke is 80 and sat through many fine speeches in nearly half a century in the Commons. He can’t recall any having such a devastating effect. “The significance of this gripping speech dawned on everybody as it was being delivered and it did make a very dramatic difference. You could almost visibly see the impact on the Conservative side of the House.”

What came next is known well enough. Heseltine announced he would challenge Thatcher. The Prime Minister’s campaign was shambolic, and to make matters worse, she refused to canvass MPs for support and even went to Paris for an international conference on the day of the crucial first ballot. Falling tantalisingly short of a winning majority, by just four votes, Mrs Thatcher’s defiant response was: “I fight on… I fight to win!”

But with support draining away, the entire Cabinet were summoned, one by one, to offer their verdict, which was almost universally negative. Ken Clarke likened the PM’s campaign to the Charge of the Light Brigade; staunch Thatcher ally Peter Lilley told his leader it was 'inconceivable that you will win'; Malcolm Rifkind described the Prime Minister as “holed below the waterline”. Most ministers pledged their own continued support to their leader but warned she was now a lost cause and would let Heseltine in if she stayed in the race. “Treachery with a smile on its face” is how Thatcher herself would later describe their advice.

Announcing her decision the next morning, 22 November, Mrs Thatcher broke down and sobbed as she read a short resignation statement to her all-male Cabinet at an early morning meeting. The only other woman in the room was her private secretary, Caroline Slocock: “During this, the men around the table were starting to cry,” she recalls. “I remember David Waddington, the Home Secretary, pulled out a great white handkerchief and started wiping away the tears. This was a moment of shocking pain, possibly one of the most painful moments in politics that anyone could witness.”

Thatcher’s withdrawal allowed other Cabinet challengers to enter the race – Douglas Hurd and also John Major, who came from nowhere in just five days, sweeping past Heseltine to top the poll and become the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister… with Thatcher making a tearful final exit from Downing Street the next day. Major had been groomed as Thatcher’s latest protégé but Michael Portillo – then a middle-ranking minister and Thatcher loyalist who had urged her to fight on – says her priority lay elsewhere. “For her, the most important thing was to stop Michael Heseltine. She had lost all sense of perspective about him. It was never, in my view, the merits of John Major that she applauded, it was stopping Heseltine.”   

The final expression of this 30-year feud was the collapse of Theresa May's government and her replacement with Boris Johnson

So do others share the analysis of biographer Charles Moore that the Conservative Party has still not recovered from the bitterness prompted by this political assassination? Lord Baker concurs: “The way she went did have a big effect on the party. I think it had an effect right up to the Brexit referendum, clearly.”

From his new berth in the Lords, Ken Clarke agrees: “I think the effects after her fall were very profound on the party. It was the bitterness that was felt by the Thatcherite wing that started the deep hostility and divide between right and left of the party in its modern form, and the choice of Brexit as a symbol of that divide, and the thing that defined which side people were on in that process, started with the fall of Margaret Thatcher and continued to develop and worsen steadily thereafter. I don't think the Conservative Party ever succeeded in healing some of the rifts and bitterness that her fall excited.”

Moore himself thinks the growing euroscepticism of the Conservatives did spring in large part from the influence of Thatcher. “She became more and more sceptic... saying after she left office, though not in public... that we should leave the EU. I would say that the final expression of this 30-year feud was the collapse of Theresa May's government and her replacement with Boris Johnson. And then finally it was more or less settled by the Tories winning a big majority under Boris's leadership and expelling the rebels. There is a lot of bitterness remaining but I think that particular fault line was settled in favour of Brexit and euroscepticism – and in that sense Thatcherism – by the victory at the last election.”

That’s a view shared by Portillo who says it’s hard to disentangle the 40-50 year split in the party over Europe from the way that Thatcher was removed, which “exacerbated the problem and increased the bitterness”. But he too believes the issue has been settled by Johnson. “That really is of immense historic significance. And Boris did it by an amazing piece of ruthlessness – taking the whip away from the 21 MPs and then making all the candidates pledge at the election that they were in favour of Brexit. Boris will have a place in history because I do think that at last that is all over.”

But some pro-European Conservatives, like Lord Heseltine, now 87 and stripped of the Conservative whip in the House of Lords, see things differently. “The party is eurosceptic for the immediate future, yes, but we haven't done Brexit yet! The Conservative Party ... will come back to the centre ground and what we are all waiting for is the emergence of people to lead that movement within Parliament,” he insists. “As yet, they have been relatively quiet but they will come.” 

In the meantime, Boris Johnson may want to keep a wary eye on his MPs. One former Tory chief whip summarised a view I heard over and over again: “If the Conservative Party took the view that Boris Johnson was going to lead it to defeat at the next election they would change their leader. If Foot or Brown had been our leader, we would simply have got rid of him. We are much, much less sentimental than Labour. We can be ruthlessly cruel if we see the party heading for defeat.”

Political veteran Ken Clarke agrees: “The Conservative Party always allows its leadership to be a near dictatorship. [But] frequently you then have a revolution, and it is overthrown.”



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