Mrs Thatcher inflicts a savage defeat on Heath and Whitelaw steps into the fight for Round 2
CAN ANYBODY STOP HER NOW?
In one of the most sensational days in British politics Edward Heath was yesterday savagely toppled from the leadership of the Tory Party.
And his opponent, 49-year-old Mrs Margaret Thatcher, emerged as the chief contender to replace him—with the prospect of becoming the nation's first woman Prime Minister.
Mr Heath, ruthlessly discarded by his party after a desperate three-month struggle to cling on to his position against all advice, acknowledged defeat after the most humiliating vote of no confidence suffered by any Conservative leader since Austen Chamberlain was forced out in 1922.
The vote: Margaret Thatcher 130, Edward Heath 119, Hugh Fraser 16.
No one had fulfilled the conditions for an outright win on the first ballot: 139 votes and a 42-vote margin over the runner-up.
Now the new entrants are streaming in for a second ballot next Tuesday.
Heading them is the party chairman, Mr William Whitelaw, who declared his entry last night. Word is expected today from Mr James Prior. Mr Maurice Macmillan and Mr Julian Amery are considering a canter and Shadow Leader of the Commons, Mr John Peyton, could be there too. Mr Fraser has dropped out.
Members on both sides of the House found it hard to credit the scale of the Thatcher break-through.
The enormity of Mr Heath 's rejection was worse than he had contemplated even in his blackest moments of anguish in the hours following the Tories' October election defeat.
The other remarkable factor is that suddenly Mr Whitelaw and the others are now in the position of being the ones doing the chasing. Mrs Thatcher, the supposed outsider, is, on yesterday's figures, only nine votes short of the overall majority which would give her a win in the next ballot under the complex rules of the election.
The word sensational is barely adequate to describe the shock wave which hit Westminster when the news was announced a moment before 4 p.m.
Mr Heath heard the verdict four minutes earlier in his room at the House, when his grim-faced Parliamentary Private Secretary and close friend, Sir Tim Kitson, hurried down from Committee Room 14 where the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Mr Edward du Cann, had presided over the count.
For Mr Heath, now 58, it is a personal tragedy. After almost ten years in which he has suffered three election defeats and one heady taste of power, he has been forced to accept that the Tory party wants a winner at its head, not a loser.
It took him less than two hours to face the magnitude of his disaster. He consulted Mr du Cann, chief whip Humphrey Atkins, Mr Whitelaw and Mr Prior.
Employment spokesman Prior, and a former Heath Parliamentary Private Secretary, had arrived breathlessly at the Commons too late even to cast his vote. He had been delayed after a meeting.
The arithmetic could not be denied. Out of 276 Tory MPs, 157 had refused to back their leader.
Eleven Tory MPs did not vote.
Over a cup of tea Heath set out the statement acknowledging his eclipse:
‘As a result of the first ballot today for the leadership of the Conservative Party I have decided not to stand in the second ballot.
‘It has been a great privilege to serve my party as its leader and my country as its Prime Minister. I would like to thank all those at Westminster and in the country who, through the years, in hard times as well as good, have given, me their support and friendship.’
And he announced that Shadow Chancellor Robert Carr—not a leadership candidate—would act as chairman of the Shadow Cabinet and lead in the Commons until the new champion is selected.
Mr Heath had made his last Commons intervention as leader of the Opposition at 3.44 p.m. when questioning Mr Harold Wilson about the Premier's trip to Washington.
In striking contrast it was a champagne celebration for Mrs Thatcher last night as she enjoyed her victory with her husband, two sons, and friends.
She said of Mr Heath 's resignation: Edward HeathHe did the honourable thing. It is a very, very sad day for him.’
Still looking fresh in a tweed suit at the end of a long and hectic day, said she was ‘thrilled’ by the ballot result.
‘We did not quite expect these results. I did feel quite confident, but in politics you learn to take what the day brings.’
As Mrs Thatcher's company director husband Denis drank a toast to his wife's spectacular victory,’ he said: ‘I am absolutely delighted. It was not a surprise, but I am still very excited. I am hopeful of next week's results.’
Mrs Thatcher said that she felt ‘well equipped’ to take over the leadership. ‘It is hard to tell when you can only compare yourself to the leader of ten years. (Mr Heath). But I can judge myself by other leaders when they have first taken over, and I feel I have the background experience.’
She said her insistence on matching her political life with her family life had helped her success. ‘People voted for all sides of a personality. Part of me is a woman and part of me is a politician.’
Mrs Thatcher said she had spoken to Sir Keith Joseph last night. But she would not talk of a political partnership.
Mr Whitelaw, announcing last night that he was standing for the leadership, made it clear that the Heath defeat would shake the Tory rank and file.
He said: ‘I supported Ted as I said I would. I believed it right to do so. I held to that view and voted for him. My [end p1] colleagues decided otherwise. He has decided he won't stand again. I have therefore made up my mind that in all the circumstances it is my duty to stand.
‘People will ask what I have to offer the Tory Party. I can only say that the result of Ted losing against the wishes of the party and the country will undoubtedly be a traumatic experience for the rank and file.
‘I can only hope it might be possible for me to unite the party again. The unity of the party in Parliament and in the country is of prime importance.’
Could he reverse Mrs Thatcher's triumphant victory in yesterday's poll?
‘I don't think it is a question of stopping Margaret Thatcher because I think in the Conservative Party it's right that our members should have a choice. I put myself forward but if they decide they want Margaret that is their affair.
‘She and I are friends, we have always been friends, we have worked together as colleagues and they must make their choice between us and the others who may decide to put themselves forward.’
‘I believe that is my mission.’
Both Mrs Thatcher and Mr Whitelaw said last night that they would welcome Mr Heath remaining on the front benches.