Commentary (The Times)

Leadership election: "Clear-cut win as 314 vote for Thatcher" (MT defeats Meyer)

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 6 December 1989
Journalist: Philip Webster & Robin Oakley, The Times
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 927 words
Themes: Conservative Party (organization), Conservative (leadership elections)

Edition 3*
WED 06 DEC 1989

Clear-cut win as 314 vote for Thatcher


Mrs Margaret Thatcher last night hailed her “splendid” victory in the first Conservative leadership election since 1975.

Mrs Thatcher, who received the votes of 314 MPs, said it showed she had the “overwhelming support” of Tory MPs and the party in the country. And Mr Kenneth Baker, the party chairman, said: “The Conservative Party has decided it wants to be led into the 1990s and the next election by Margaret Thatcher.” The vote had cleared the air. “The leadership question is now settled, “ he said.

But the Prime Minister was not unscathed by the first contest since she replaced Mr Edward Heath. Sixty MPs expressed reservations about her leadership by either voting against her or abstaining in the contest forced by Sir Anthony Meyer.

Returning from Buckingham Palace after her regular audience with the Queen, Mrs Thatcher told reporters that the result was a “splendid answer” to the challenge mounted against her.

But it was clear that she had suffered a jolt to her leadership and one which senior MPs predicted last night would have to be taken seriously in Downing Street. Senior colleagues are expected to advise her to listen carefully to the concerns of MPs on such issues as the European Community, the health service and the poll tax.

Many MPs expressed the view that Mrs Thatcher would have to soften her stance on the EC, the main reason put forward by Sir Anthony for standing against her. Mr Michael Heseltine, who was said by close colleagues to have been one of the three MPs who did not vote, maintained the pressure last night with a speech in which he dismissed the view that closer European integration was a “sell-out of sovereignty.”

He told the British Institute of Management: “So long as the economic powerhouse of Western Europe is the Community, the only way to pursue our interests is as a full member of it.”

Mr Cranley Onslow, chairman of the 1922 Committee, announced the result to MPs in Committee Room 12 of the Commons at 6.25pm. The voting was: Mrs Thatcher 314, Sir Anthony Meyer 33; spoilt papers 24; non-voters 3. One abstainer was too ill even to vote by proxy.

Mrs Thatcher's campaign manager, Mr George Younger, had hoped to keep the number of dissenters below 50 but he hailed the result as a resounding vote of confidence: “It is a marvellous result; 85 per cent of MPs voted for her. It will strengthen her authority for some time to come.”

But one leading backbencher said that considering the pressure on MPs to vote for Mrs Thatcher, the number of abstentions was surprisingly high. He described it as “the tip of the iceberg”. Some MPs took the view that if the government has another difficult year, a contest involving a more serious contender next year could not be ruled out.

Sir Anthony, MP for Clwyd North-West, said he was flattered that as many as 33 MPs voted for him.

Throughout the day an excited election atmosphere gripped Tory MPs. When the “polling station” opened just before 10am, 17 MPs were waiting and within three hours about half of those entitled to vote had filed in. Sir Anthony was among the first.

Many MPs declined to tell waiting reporters how they voted but Cabinet members, including Mr Nicholas Ridley, emerged saying they voted for Mrs Thatcher.

The Prime Minister went straight from the Commons chamber after Question Time to vote. Asked if she was confident of the outcome, she replied “Yes, yes”, although she crossed the fingers of both hands and held them up.

Mr Edward Heath went in shortly after her, having declared on BBC Radio at lunchtime that he was not going to abstain. He said he would use his vote in the way he felt best for his party and his country. Afterwards, when asked if it was a moment worth waiting for, he said: “I always accept my responsibilities.”

The first arrival was Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, the flamboyant MP for Perth and Kinross who had also been the first to vote for Mrs Thatcher in both the 1975 ballots.

Sir Nicholas was contemptuous of the contest, saying: “It is extraordinary that when you have the most successful Prime Minister in history, that a whole lot of legless, barking dogs should attempt to dent her authority.” Mr Younger had also earlier described the election as an unfortunate event.

“Nobody really came forward to challenge her except a self-confessed stalking-horse and I think that is a great pity.”

He admitted there were a number of issues which were causing worries, such as the ambulance dispute, mortgage rates and the poll tax. “But these are typical mid-term blues. They are not the stuff of which we are going to change the leader.”

Mr Peter Walker, the last “wet” in the Cabinet, was asked after casting his vote whether he could be “exit-polled”. He responded: “Certainly not” and marched off.

Mr Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: “This result is bad for the country and will be bad for the Conservative Party. Everybody should now be clear. Mrs Thatcher no longer has the confidence of a majority of the House of Commons.”