Major wins battle for No.10
John Major, the 47-year-old Chancellor of the Exchequer who promised to create a truly classless society in the 1990s, is the new leader of the Conservative party. Today he will succeed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, the youngest since Lord Rosebery in 1894.
Mrs Thatcher will see the Queen this morning to hand in her resignation. Forty-five minutes later, at 10.30, Mr Major will arrive at Buckingham Palace and be invited to form a government.
Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, his rivals, conceded victory last night after Mr Major had come within two votes of the 187 required for outright victory. They called on the party to unite behind him and said they would vote for him in the third ballot. That ballot thus became a formality and was scrapped.
On the steps of 11 Downing Street, Mr Major said: “This election has enhanced the democratic process substantially. It has been a very clean election and an election based on substance, not on personalities. It has dealt constructively with the issues.”
He expressed gratitude to his opponents for the way they had conducted the election and the gracious way they had conceded. “It is a very exciting thing to become leader of the Conservative party, particularly exciting to follow one of the most remarkable leaders the Conservative party has had. I believe that as time proceeds and Margaret Thatcher's period as prime minister is seen in proper perspective it will be seen that she has been a very great prime minister,” he said.
Mr Major added: “My job is clear. We are going to unite. We are going to unite totally and absolutely and we will win the next general election.”
The voting in the second round of the contest was John Major 185, Michael Heseltine 131, Douglas Hurd 56. That gave Mr Major 49.7 per cent of the vote. Mr Major told Radio Cambridgeshire: “We had an idea where our vote was coming from and we were not terribly surprised. I think I was pretty calm about it. There was great excitement and delight when it actually happened.”
Mr Heseltine, outside his Belgravia home, said his purpose was to ensure that unity was achieved at once “in order that we may go on to win the next general election which will secure us a fourth term … We are about to see the dawn of a new era of Conservative administration.”
Douglas Hurd said Mr Major would be an excellent prime minister. “I'm glad I had a go, I would have kicked myself if I hadn't had a go,” he said. “But I've certainly come home a happy man tonight.”
Mrs Thatcher, who was seen peering out from the curtains of the chancellor's home in Downing Street after the result was declared, said that she was “thrilled” . She said that the chancellor “will be a superb leader of this country. I want everyone in the party to rally behind him so that he can go on and win a fourth successive general election.”
Mr Hurd and Mr Heseltine will meet Mr Major this morning. Last night, Mr Major was briefed by officials about the handover of power, and had a drink with Mrs Thatcher. At [end p1] 10.15pm, he made his first appearance in the Commons as party leader. Conservative MPs cheered and waved their order papers and Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, crossed the floor of the House to shake his hand.
Mr Kinnock, however, had greeted Mr Major 's victory by saying: “John Major is a Thatcherette. It means that the policies that brought poll tax, recession, heavy mortgages and rising unemployment will go on.”
Tory MPs greeted the swift end to the contest with jubilation. They said that Mr Heseltine 's concession had done much to heal divisions and that the contest had united the party and transformed the prospects for the next election. Senior strategists do not expect Mr Major to go to the country until there has been a turn-around in the economy.
Mr Major confirmed beliefs that he would offer Mr Heseltine a job when he chatted to Tory MPs in the Commons. He was understood to have expressed gratitude over the way in which the campaigns were run, and added: “I am going to have a cabinet of all their talents.”
MPs had been speculating that Mr Heseltine would be offered the post of environment secretary or trade secretary. Mr Hurd is expected to be invited to continue as foreign secretary. Significantly, Lord Whitelaw, who had criticised Mr Heseltine, yesterday urged his inclusion in the cabinet.
Mr Major who has been only 11 years in the Commons and just three in the cabinet, has climbed swiftly. MPs acknowledge that few have risen so far and made so few enemies in the process.
He has emphasised his eagerness to boost education, and has said that he is prepared to see some increase in public expenditure to improve public services, but is committed to reducing the standard rate of income tax to 20p. The new prime minister will come under immediate pressure, however, for a poll tax review.
Sterling firmed slightly on foreign currency markets at the end of the leadership battle. Markets have been strengthening this week in the belief that base rates will be cut within a few days.