Thatcher: The Inside Story
Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power in November 1990 was an extraordinary political disaster which remained unexpected right up to the day it happened. That it should have happened at all was due to a sorry sequence of mishaps which, as her campaign manager and long-time friend, I was able to witness at first hand.
Worst of all, it happened because she had not taken seriously enough the real reasons why she had been forced to see off the first challenge to her position a year earlier when Sir Anthony Meyer stood against her as a “stalking horse” candidate.
Perhaps if she had done so there would not have been a subsequent challenge from Michael Heseltine and she could still have been in power today.
Because I had managed the successful campaign against Sir Anthony Meyer, Margaret asked me to report on the views expressed by the party and I made this in writing some weeks later. Soon after we had a long and frank talk about it.
The moment came on a winter’s evening in early 1990 when she summoned me to her room at 10 Downing Street to have a long talk over a glass or two of whisky. As her campaign manager I had been in the unique position of feeling the party’s pulse and it was only too clear that despite success in three elections, all was not well.
Although Margaret had won comfortably by 314 votes to Sir Anthony Meyer's 35, there had been 24 abstentions which meant that around 60 MPs had been unable to endorse their leader. My colleague in the campaign team Tristan Garel-Jones had also warned her that there might be a hundred more who were still uneasy about her leadership, largely because they did not like her position on Europe.
Under the circumstances I decided to be forthright. My most urgent concern was Europe. Margaret felt passionately that the Delors vision of Europe was wrong. Not only is she intensely pro-British but she has a lifelong and, in my view, admirable dislike of socialism. And, of course, Jacques Delors is a socialist.
However, I felt that it was my duty to tell her that she had to change her rhetoric over Europe. I urged her to accept that she would never change the basic addiction of the bulk of her parliamentary support to a pro-European policy and attitude. Her colleagues all admired and respected her successful fights for British interests at European meetings, particularly her battle to get a rebate on the budget. But they must, however tough, be pro-European in tone.
I also felt that a change of advisers would be timely and would give a new lease of life to the image of a prime minister who had been at No 10 for as long as many people could remember. I made this point even though the advisers in question, Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell, were both superbly good at the job. It was not better advice that was needed but a change of style.
In some respects the fault was theirs. Bernard Ingham’s whole job was to put out the news as he saw it from Mrs Thatcher’s point of view and over the years there were many people who felt that their version had not been given the treatment they would have hoped. It was also true that both men were unpopular in the party simply because they were there in No. 10 as advisers and it was too easy to ascribe all difficulties to them.
Finally, I told her that she should spend more time in House of Commons so that members would not feel, however wrongly, that she was remote or out of touch. As the poll tax was emerging as a real political problem I suggested that something should be done to ease the burden, especially in the constituencies in the north-west of England.
The meeting was very frank and very friendly. She said she would think about what I had said and would make a real effort to take the advice. Margaret certainly heard me out but, alas, one crucial recommendation was just too much for her. Although she came to the House more often and made herself more available, she did not change her tune on Europe and she refused to bring in a new team of advisers. And therein lay the real truth of the final tragedy which took place one year later, in November 1990.
Also, while Margaret had done well to see off Sir Anthony Meyer, she had missed the real point of his challenge. Meyer had conducted his campaign with considerable charm and style, readily admitting that he did not expect to win many votes and not attempting to conduct any high-profile campaigning. His object was to force a contest. In achieving that, he had done all he aimed to do.
Unfortunately, Margaret failed to realise this and her easy victory gave her a false sense of confidence. Although there were many difficulties throughout the year I still did not think it was inevitable that there would have to be another contest. Not that the problems were not real enough. There was increased trouble over poll tax (somewhat eased by local election success in Wandsworth and Westminster), there were by-election disasters and signs of economic trouble brewing.
The shadow of Michael Heseltine was also showing itself once more. He worked tirelessly for the party but everyone knew he would dearly like to challenge for the leadership if he could find an excuse to get round his condition that he would not challenge Margaret himself in “any circumstances he could see”. Once more it was Europe that created the accident which gave him his chance.
At the Rome summit in June [sic: October] the Italians, for their own reasons, ganged up with Chancellor Kohl of Germany to force the pace on monetary union to a faster timetable.
Margaret argued her corner effectively, and moderately, but on her return to the House under questioning she let her true and very understandable feelings show in very harsh words about the whole concept of closer monetary union. This was too much for Geoffrey Howe and the atmosphere got distinctly worse. Relations between him and Margaret were already very bad owing to his frustration, and her increasingly rough treatment of him in cabinet discussions about Europe.
He and Margaret had worked together superbly when he was Chancellor but during his long tour as Foreign Secretary her instinctive distrust of the Foreign Office brought her and Geoffrey into many fierce arguments about Delors’s vision for Europe.
Cabinet meetings could be tense affairs because it fell to Geoffrey to explain to Margaret that, while he also disagreed with Delors, he had to take him seriously in order to counter him. She would blow off about the latest Delorism and Geoffrey would wait until she came to a half and say, “Yes, Prime Minister, I quite agree with all that you say but the fact is that we have to appreciate that he does have support.”
Then, in his role as Leader of the House, Geoffrey and Margaret had another blow-up later in 1990 when he produced the legislative plans for the next session. These had been agreed by everyone in the cabinet but when the final version was produced, Margaret went for him. “Nothing in it. Haven't you done this? Can't we do that?” She was pretty rude to him.
Geoffrey was brilliant as handling these attacks and remained patient and calm. As a fellow Wykehamist I appreciated the qualities of patient argument that he invariably brought to disagreements that with anyone else would have become too heated to continue. He took it all marvellously and I watched him with amazement.
But even for Geoffrey enough was enough and he resigned over his glaringly obvious differences of opinion over Europe. This was bad enough, but when he made his resignation speech on 13 November, 1990 the balloon really went up. In content and style it was vicious, not like Geoffrey at all, but it was a lethal stroke, for it gave Michael Heseltine the excuse he needed to say there was a new situation. He forthwith made his challenge and we were into a new leadership election.
In more than one way it was a bad moment for the Prime Minister. Quite apart from her position on Europe she had allowed herself to become embattled on the question of the poll tax. Whenever she met anyone she felt that the over-riding need was to get her view across to them. She seemed to be saying that as no one else in the government was putting the case strongly enough, she had to show the way. By then I think she was not listening as much as lecturing.
Even so, Margaret still had reasons to feel secure. Consider her position at the time. She had, even according to her opponents, been very effective as a leader. She had made enormous changes of policy at home, and throughout the world was clearly regarded as a major figure. And yet, within a few short days she was under threat and dumped by her own party.
For me, the crisis started on November 14, 1990 immediately after Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret in a leadership election. Once again her parliamentary private secretary Peter Morrison telephoned me and asked me to manage her campaign. At the time I was heavily committed at the Royal Bank of Scotland, having left the cabinet in July 1989 at my own request to fulfil a long-standing commitment to join the bank as their chairman.
My first reaction was to say that I fully supported Margaret but could not manage her campaign because I had not the time. Besides I had already organised her previous campaign in November 1989. Peter Morrison had brought me in because a number of senior colleagues felt that I had the right status, being a senior figure but not identified with either left or right wing groups in the party. In November 1990 I was not so sure that I would be able to give 100 per cent effort to this vital campaign.
However I was prevailed upon to accept the job on the understanding that most of the work would be done by the team of MPs who had helped me during the previous campaign. Morrison also suggested that if I refused, it would be said that I was deserting her because I had lost the will to support her - a powerful argument which was difficult to refute.
Later in the day I met Margaret in her rooms in the House. She was in determined mood but she was also intensely irritated by the challenge to her leadership. “I always knew that he was just looking for an opportunity. Geoffrey gave him it.” To her way of thinking, Heseltine's decision was transparently self-serving and she made it clear to me that we had to “stop Heseltine”.
Once again we put together a good team whose backbone was four very experienced MPs - Tristan Garel-Jones, Gerry Neale, Richard Ryder and Mark Lennox-Boyd. We also benefited by sterling work from Michael Neubert and Ian Twinn, Norman Tebbit (who did much TV work) and John Moore. Others outside the group who greatly helped were Michael Jopling and George Gardiner.
Sadly there was one tragic omission. Ian Gow was no longer with us. He had been murdered by an IRA car bomb at his home in July and we were to miss his sparkle and also his hard work and sound advice. He had also been devoted to Margaret. For him, politically speaking, it had been a labour of love.
We set up a small office in Abbey Gardens kindly loaned by Lord McAlpine and met many times every day and night during the run-in to the first ballot. At the time my duties at the Royal Bank meant that I had to spend a lot of time shuttling between London and Edinburgh but I was able to keep in regular touch with the team. We spent the weekend in London meeting and telephoning party members and taking the electoral temperature.
On paper at least our task seemed simple enough. What we had to do was to divide the members’ names into categories, those for us, those against us, and those who were doubtful.
In practice it was less than easy. MPs are tricky to canvass as they are, of course, partly expert at it themselves. Some take offence if approached at all, others are mortified if not spoken to three times a day! For example, we didn't canvass Ted Heath because it would have been a waste of resources. Fine judgement is needed!
As some people have alleged that in some way this campaign was less well organised, I must refute that. Everyone who was remotely worth canvassing was covered; some several times. There were many more “no” voters, as this time we had a serious challenger in Michael Heseltine. It was his one great chance to become leader: once he had made the challenge he had burned his boats and there was no going back.
For that reason perhaps it was also more difficult in the politics. Some of those who supported us reluctantly in 1989 had run out of tolerance by 1990. Because the stalking horse had clearly not been a serious danger to Margaret the vast majority had quickly assured us that, of course, they would offer their support, but in far too many cases they had gone on to say that they had only done so with reluctance. In the first ballot they may have voted for Heseltine to demonstrate their disapproval of Thatcher.
Some had said that they felt Margaret’s style was too abrasive, others were concerned about the effects of the poll tax. These were understandable. But much the deepest worry were those solid loyal back-benchers who said they did not like her attitude to Europe. Geoffrey Howe’s speech had fired up all the pro-Europeans - he had described Margaret’s interventions as “background noise” - and Michael’s team were, of course, playing this up whenever they could.
There was also criticism of Margaret’s decision to visit the troops in Northern Ireland on November 16 before going to the European Summit meeting in Paris for the signing of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. Some of her supporters thought that she should have put her own leadership first. Those, like Kenneth Baker, who thought it was a mistake to go in the first place, are absolutely wrong. For myself I think that she had little choice but to go - her detractors would have seen it as a panic measure had she not gone - but it didn’t help.
However we were reasonably sure of getting well over 200 votes, possibly as many as 220 - just enough to get the overall majority plus 15 per cent that the curious rules required if she was to avoid a second ballot. In fact so certain were we of victory that no arrangements had been made for organising another stage.
Nonetheless, it was going to be a close call and I was uncomfortably aware that for weeks I had been told by everyone I met in the outside world that they hoped Maggie would win, but it wouldn't do if it was only by one or two votes. That was the real fear and it was not assuaged by our knowledge that not everyone was being truthful about their voting intentions.
This applied particularly to members of the government who had a vested interest in not being completely honest. After all, they could not be seen to be openly opposing the Prime Minister. On the other hand at least two members said they would support Margaret Thatcher provided that they were given a job after the election!
As it turned out, MPs did what constituents do in by-elections. As we guessed at least 15 told us they would vote for Margaret and then did the opposite. This was the simple reason why our forecasts proved to be wrong.
As polling day approached, the atmosphere in the corridors at Westminster was electric. Heseltine’s team were very active and sounded confident, worried loyalists passed us information and warned us of people they thought we had missed out, and everybody speculated.
It was the sole topic of conversation for all parties and the media had a field day reporting rumour and counter-rumour. One moment Heseltine was only going to poll 50 votes; later this changed to 200 and then there was wild talk about him abolishing the poll tax if he won. As might be expected, MPs of all shades loved the excitement.
Even I was not unaffected by it. The night before polling day, I had a chance conversation with Michael Heseltine in the Members’ dining room, which is interesting in retrospect. His words were: “Look, we all know what is going to happen tomorrow, I just want to assure you that as far as I am concerned, I will remain fully supportive of the party as I always have done.”
These were not the words of a man who expected to win. No doubt his canvassing told him that he would get nowhere near as many votes as Margaret.
But there was a catch in the Byzantine electoral system which had been designed by Humphrey Berkeley and then implemented by Alec Douglas-Home and Edward Heath, both former prime ministers. Margaret had to beat Heseltine and get 15 per cent more votes above that. In the event she got 204 votes which was four short of the number needed to give her a clear majority and avoid a second ballot.
I was in Edinburgh when the vote was announced and was shocked and horrified that it had not been possible to get the extra four votes - although even these would not have been enough to give her the full confidence to remain in power. Even so, I was devastated, partly for her personally but also because I felt that the Conservative Party had made an enormous blunder.
Prudently, as it turned out, we had advised Margaret what to say from her meeting in Paris, whatever the result. It was clear to me and some others that if she did not win outright she had to say immediately that she would fight on. Anything less would have sealed her defeat then and there. It would have been a signal that she was totally wounded.
When the news reached Margaret at 6.30 pm in the British Embassy in Paris, her reaction was imprinted on the nation's consciousness. She walked out the embassy and announced to an astonished BBC correspondent that she was pleased to have got more than half the parliamentary party’s vote and that it was her intention to let her name “go forward for the second ballot”.
She had done what we advised and it did give her 24 hours breathing space to try and stick it out. If the trumpet had sounded an uncertain note in Paris, hers would have been a lost cause.
However, during that same breathing space, sufficient numbers of her own cabinet decided she could not win, and rather leave the field to Michael Heseltine, they advised her to withdraw and open the field to others. This she did with a heavy heart but great responsibility.
I, myself, was definitely out of the team after the final result was announced. I had always made it clear that I could only commit myself partially for a first ballot.
Unfortunately, no plans seemed to have been made for who would take over, and there was much confusion about this on the final Wednesday.
What eventually happened, I think, was that Norman Tebbit got so frustrated by this that he told the press that John Wakeham was now in charge. This caused some irritation to John Wakeham who knew nothing about the arrangement but in any case it was academic, as the second ballot never happened as far as Margaret was concerned. She had to be satisfied with the consolation that, due to the intervention of Major and Hurd, Michael Heseltine was stopped and John Major became her successor.
Although I felt desperately sorry to see Margaret go, I am quite clear that no fine tuning of the campaign could have altered the result. By the time the Heseltine challenge was launched, it was written into the political background that she would not win by a sufficient margin. The reasons went back to the 1989 contest when a disturbing trend emerged which worried me a great deal but which Margaret refused to act upon.
It was a political disaster which should never have happened. There were, as I have mentioned, many causes of unhappiness in the governing party as this time. However, this is not at all unusual in politics, and there was nothing special about these events which could not normally have been settled.
What was unusual was for the leader of a party in government to get fundamentally out of agreement with the main political philosophy of a large and influential part of the party.
An explosion was waiting to happen and it needed two accidents to trigger it off.
The first was Margaret’s strong language, quite unscripted, in the House after the Rome summit. This triggered Geoffrey Howe’s resignation.
The second was Geoffrey’s totally uncharacteristic resignation speech. The viciousness of this gave Michael Heseltine the excuse he needed to make a real challenge for the leadership.
From such accidents came the sudden removal from high office of the most effective political leader in the western world. Margaret Thatcher led firmly from the front but the Conservative Party failed to be steady enough in battle and were not prepared to support her at a time of temporary unhappiness.
No political party which has any self-respect should ever again allow a properly elected leader to be treated in this way.