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MT's private files for 1990 - (1) mastery lost

By the opening of 1990, MT had lost the mastery of domestic politics which she had enjoyed since her third election victory in 1987.

Naturally, few were foolish enough to write her off. She still retained an international profile as high, if not higher, than any British politician since Churchill, as well as an extraordinary hold over the domestic scene, powerfully shaping the agenda and the very language of British politics. She had seen - and overcome - worse.

But the outlook was darkening, her hold over the electorate slipping.

INTRODUCTION

Conference with pollsters:
Whittingdale tells MT she has lost the 'C2s'

The problems were multiple and complex, but on the electoral side two mattered most: hostility to the poll tax and growing discontent with economic policy, focussed at this stage on high interest rates and the consequent drop in house prices. As 1990 opened these problems were eating away at MT's position, with opinion polls beginning to show consistently strong leads for Labour, unprecedented in her entire time as leader.

She no longer looked invulnerable at Westminster either. In October 1989 she had lost her most powerful domestic lieutenant when Nigel Lawson resigned as Chancellor, the circumstances of John Major’s promotion as his replacement giving the new man unprecedented leverage over No.10. It also made Major the bookies’ favourite for the succession, of which there was more and more talk. In early December 1989 MT faced a leadership contest against a stalking horse candidate and only won it in a manner that showed insiders, if not the wider world, that her standing among Conservative MPs was shaky. The requirement that she face re-election annually as party leader had long existed; now it had become clear how it could be used as a mechanism to oust her. The open question was when or whether it would.

The Thatcher files here at Churchill give her personal perspective and that of the party and of the No.10 Press Office much more fully than those at TNA, and are correspondingly light on policy. The press operation bulks especially large in 1990, with Ingham ever more involved as things fell apart for MT. We are opening the 1990 files to the public as the last in the long series of releases for each year of the Thatcher Government. They don't lack drama.

The political problem at the start of the year is well framed by two party documents. There is a memo from Conservative chairman, Ken Baker, on 10 January, ominously titled “The Political consequences of the Community Charge in the Local Elections, May 1990”, warning that bad results could trigger a backbench campaign to shift a large area of expenditure from local government to the Exchequer and so ‘fix’ the problem before the next General Election – in other words a freelance version of a step eventually taken by the Major government, in some desperation, the following year. On 14 Jan MT’s Political Secretary, John Whittingdale, sent her an account of a party meeting at Hever Castle, presided over by Baker, which addressed the underlying electoral problem, attended among others by MT’s trusted advertising guru, Tim Bell, and Reagan’s chief pollster, Dick Wirthlin. Essentially, the message was that the Conservatives had lost the C2s – the skilled working class vote, which had been crucial to her three election victories and to the whole political realignment that had taken place since 1979. (See document inset on this page.) How to win them back was one of the themes of party agonising in 1990. If it could not be done, ‘Thatcherism’ was finished.

One element of the C2 problem arose from the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. To maintain confidence in Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover in 1997, the government proposed a large increase in the number of Hong Kong passport holders with rights to settle in the UK. Baker sent MT intelligence he had received of tactical planning to defeat the necessary legislation by members of the 92 Group of Conservative backbenchers. He told her: “Norman Tebbit said that they could drag out the necessary proceedings and extend them if necessary beyond July into the overspill period so that there is a prospect of ‘wrecking the Conference’” – quite a step for a former party chairman such as Tebbit to contemplate, if true. Certainly the Hong Kong issue produced the biggest single rebellion from the right of the Conservative Party during the Thatcher Governments. There were naturally many gripes in the 1922 committee, one of the more humorous ones reported back to her from Sir John Stokes, very much a man of the right:

Where is the Party going and what is our strategy for the next General Election? People talk politics in pubs - a bad sign for Tories. People should not talk politics if they are happy (laughter). If we must have Bills, let's have some popular ones (laughter).

By 5 Mar Labour’s polling lead had stretched to 18.5 per cent, the largest since the Heath Government first hit trouble in 1971 (Labour 49.5, Conservative 31). Clearly this was taking its toll personally on MT. She began receiving letters of encouragement (never a good sign, e.g, “when the tide goes out it goes a long way”, from John Wakeham, the kind of metaphor an Essex MP like him might reach for). There was also the opposite thing, a long bleak letter from Tim Bell on 16 March, focussed on the community charge and the C2s, a document which did not spare her.

Bell wrote at the beginning of what some in the press later called ‘your worst week’, as Ingham told her. They were wrong, as it happened: the Trafalgar Square riot came barely ten days later and the rest of the year turned out well short of a picnic. But the “worst week” was pretty bad, even so, culminating in the Conservative loss of the Mid-Staffs by-election, the worst such defeat in 50 years, putting Labour in landslide territory. “Maggie’s Day of Disaster” the Daily Mail called it.

Selection of documents mentioned on this page

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