Commentary

Key personal & political events

1990 Nov 20 Tu
Thatcher memoirs

Falling from power: Hearing the result of the first ballot [memoirs extract]

Document type: commentary
Document kind: Memoirs extract
Venue: British Embassy, Paris
Source: Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp842-45
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: -
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 1735 words
Themes: Conservative (leadership elections)

First ballot of the leadership election

[extract from Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp842-45]

The next day (Sunday 18th November) I departed for the CSCE summit in Paris. I have discussed elsewhere the purpose and outcome of this occasion. It marked the formal - though sadly not the actual - beginning of that new era which was termed by President Bush a "new world order". In Paris far-reaching decisions were taken to shape the post-Cold War Europe which had emerged from the peaceful defeat of communism. These included deep mutual cuts in conventional armed forces within the CFE framework, a European "Magna Carta" guaranteeing political rights and economic freedom (an idea I had particularly championed), and the establishment of CSCE mechanisms to promote conciliation, to prevent conflict, to facilitate free elections, and to encourage consultations between governments and parliamentarians.

As usual, I had a series of bi-lateral meetings with Heads of Government. The Gulf was almost always at the forefront of our discussions, though my mind kept turning to what was happening back in Westminster. On Monday (19th November) I had breakfast with President Bush, signed on behalf of the United Kingdom the historic agreement to reduce conventional forces in Europe, attended the first plenary session of the CSCE, and lunched with the other leaders at the Elysée Palace. In the afternoon I made my own speech to the summit, looking back over the long term benefits of the Helsinki process, emphasising the continued importance of human rights and the rule of law, pointing to their connection with economic freedom, and warning against any attempt to downgrade NATO which was "the core of Western defence". I later talked with the UN Secretary General about the situation in the Gulf before entertaining Chancellor Kohl to dinner at the British Embassy.

It was characteristic of Helmut Kohl that, unlike the other leaders I had met, he came straight to the point, namely the leadership election. He said it was good to talk about these difficult issues rather than bottle them up. He had been determined to devote this evening to me as a way of demonstrating his complete support. It was unimaginable that I should be deprived of office.

Given that the Chancellor and I had strong differences on the future course of the European Community and that my departure would remove an obstacle to his plans - as, indeed, proved to be case - this was big-hearted of him. With a more serpentine politician, I would have assumed this to be merely insurance against my victory. But Chancellor Kohl, whether as ally or opponent, was never devious. So I was very moved by his words, and by the real warmth of his feeling. I tried to overcome my confusion by explaining the peculiarities of the Tory leadership electoral system, but he said that my account only confirmed his suspicion that the system was quite mad. By now I had concluded he had a point. Then, somewhat to my relief, the conversation turned to the prospects for the IGCs and Economic and Monetary Union, where Chancellor Kohl seemed willing to make compromises, at least on timing. Whether anything more would have come of it than from earlier assurances I cannot say; but I like to think it would have done.

The following day I would know the results of the first ballot. Peter had spoken to me on the telephone on Monday evening, and he was still radiating confidence. It had already been arranged that he would come out to Paris to be there to give me "the good news", which would be telephoned through to him from the Whips' Office. It had also been agreed precisely what I would do and say in the event of various eventualities - ranging from an overwhelming victory to a defeat on the first round. Knowing there was nothing more I could do, I threw all my energies on Tuesday into more meetings with Heads of Government and the CSCE proceedings. In the morning (Tuesday 20th November) I had talks with President Gorbachev, President Mitterrand and President Ozal, and lunch with the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers. After lunch I had a talk with President Zhelev of Bulgaria who said that President Reagan and I shared the responsibility for delivering freedom to Eastern Europe and no-one would ever forget that. Perhaps it took the leader of a country which had been crushed for decades under communist terror to understand just what had happened in the world and why.

The afternoon's session of the CSCE closed at 4.30. After tea and some discussion with my advisers of the day's events, I went upstairs to my room at the Residence to have my hair done. Just after 6 o'clock I went up to a room set aside for me to await the results. Bernard Ingham, Charles Powell, our Ambassador Sir Ewen Fergusson, Crawfie Cynthia Crawford and Peter were there. Peter had a line open to the Chief Whip, and Charles had another to John Whittingdale back in London. I sat at a desk with my back to the room and got on with some work. Although I did not realise it then, Charles received the results first. Out of my sight, he gave a sad thumb's down to people in the room, but waited for Peter to get the news officially. Then I heard Peter Morrison receive the information from the Whips' Office. He read out the figures: I had 204 votes, Michael Heseltine 152, and there were 16 abstentions.

"Not quite as good as we had hoped" said Peter, for once a master of understatement, and handed a note of the results to me. I quickly did the sums in my head. I had beaten Michael Heseltine and achieved a clear majority of the Parliamentary Party (indeed, I got more votes in defeat than John Major later won in victory); but I had not won by a margin sufficient to avoid a second ballot. If I had held two votes that in the event had gone to Michael, I would have beaten him by the required amount. But there was little point now in making precise calculations on the consequences of the want of a nail. A short silence followed.

It was broken by Peter Morrison's trying to telephone Douglas Hurd's room in the Residence but finding that Douglas was on the line to John Major in Great Stukeley, where the Chancellor was recovering from an operation to remove his wisdom teeth. A few minutes later we got through to Douglas who at once came along to see me. I did not need to ask for his continued support. He declared that I should stand in the second ballot and promised his own, and John Major's, support. He proved as good as his word, and I was glad to have such a staunch friend by my side. Having thanked him and after a little more discussion I went down, as previously planned, to meet the press and make my statement:

"Good evening gentlemen. I am naturally very pleased that I got more than half the Parliamentary Party and disappointed that it is not quite enough to win on the first ballot, so I confirm it is my intention to let my name go forward for the second ballot".

Douglas followed me and said:

"I would just like to make a brief comment on the ballot result. The Prime Minister continues to have my full support, and I am sorry that this destructive, unnecessary contest should be prolonged in this way".

I went back upstairs to my room and made a number of telephone calls, including one to Denis. There was little to be said. The dangers were all too obvious, and the telephone was not right for a heart to heart discussion of what to do. Anyway, everyone in London knew from my statement that I would carry on.

I changed out of the black wool suit with its tan and black collar which I was wearing when the bad news came through. Although somewhat stunned, I was perhaps less distressed than I might have expected. The evidence is that whereas other outfits which evoke sad memories never see the light of day again, I still wear that black wool suit with the tan and black collar. But now I had to be in evening dress for dinner at the Palace of Versailles, before which a ballet was to be performed. I sent ahead to President Mitterrand warning him that I would be late and asking that they start without me.

Before leaving for Versailles, I went in to see my old friend Eleanor (the late Lady) Glover at whose Swiss home I had spent so many enjoyable hours on holiday and who had come round from her Paris flat to comfort me. We talked for just a few minutes in the Ambassador's sitting room. Her maid, Marta, who was with her, had "seen it in the cards". I thought it might be useful to get Marta on the campaign team.

At 8 o'clock I left the Embassy with Peter Morrison to be driven at break-neck speed in a big black Citroën with outriders through the empty Paris streets, cleared for Presidents Bush and Gorbachev. But my mind was in London. I knew that our only chance was if the campaign were to go into high gear and every potential supporter pressed to fight for my cause. Again and again, I stressed this to Peter: "we have got to fight." Some twenty minutes later we arrived at Versailles where President Mitterrand was waiting for me. "Of course we would never have started without you", the President said, and with the considerable charm at his command, he accompanied me inside as if I had just won an election instead of half-losing one.

It will be imagined that I could not give the whole of my attention to the ballet. Even the dinner afterwards, always a memorable event at President Mitterrand's table, was something of a strain. The press and photographers were waiting for us as we left, and they showed a special interest in me. Realising this, George and Barbara Bush, who were just about to leave, swept me up to come out with them. It was one of those little acts of kindness which remind us that even power politics is not just about power.