As her husband, Denis, looked on with pride, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher poked her head out of a second-floor window at Conservative party headquarters in London last week and waved triumphantly to a crowd of cheering supporters. It was 2:30 in the morning, but even after an exhausting 24-day election campaign, the Iron Lady had lost none of her characteristic vigor. “It has been a wonderful day,” she declared emphatically before making the five-minute drive back to 10 Downing Street. Indeed, the outcome of last week’s election was even historic. By leading her party to a resounding victory, Thatcher, 61, became the first British prime minister in the 20th century to win a third consecutive term in office.
Although most analysts had predicted that Thatcher would win reelection, the scale of her victory caught many people by surprise. Even within Tory ranks there was widespread agreement that the par-
ty’s campaign had not unfolded as smoothly and as efficiently as they had hoped. By contrast, most observers said that Labour Leader Neil Kinnock had run a strong race, and that the Tories would probably be returned with only a small majority. But when the counting was over, the Tories had captured a landslide 375 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, compared with 229 seats for Labour and 22 seats for the LiberalSocial Democratic Party Alliance. That will give Thatcher an overall majority of 101 seats—down from a 137-seat majority in the last parliament but still more than enough to enable her to govern comfortably.
Despite the Tories’ strong showing, there were some encouraging signs for Labour. The party’s share of the vote actually increased to 31 per cent from 27 per cent in the last election. But for the most part Labour’s gains were confined to Scotland, Wales and the North of England —regions where the party already held most of the
seats. But Labour lost seats in London and in the rest of southern England, where economic conditions in recent years have been much more favorable. Said John Smith, a Labour MP from Scotland: “The people who have done well under Thatcherism have turned their backs on the rest of the country. What is deeply worrying is the division between rich and poor, north and south. I grieve for my country.”
Newly elected Labour MP Ken Livingstone, however, said that the party’s poor showing was partly a result of a continuing struggle between moderate Labour members and extreme left-wingers. Declared Livingstone, a hard-line leftist: “We have been spending too much time looking inward and arguing among ourselves. We obviously have to rethink our policies and rethink our approach.”
The results were even more shattering to the Alliance, a middle-ofthe-road coalition formed in 1981. Supporters of the Alliance have tried to create a moderate, classless alternative to the polarized politics of the Tories and Labour. But instead of increasing its level of support, the Alliance lost five seats. Its share of the vote also fell to 23 per cent from 25 per cent in 1983, suggesting that many voters who had once supported the Alliance had drifted back to one or the other of the two more established parties. Said John Cartwright, a Social Democratic MP from the London-area constituency of Woolwich: “We’re banging our heads against the ceiling and not really breaking through.”
Thatcher, looking buoyant and confident on the day after the vote—despite having had only three hours’ sleep—said that she would use her new mandate to try to revive Britain’s decaying inner cities. She added, “We have just had the most fantastic triumph because people realize our economic policies are working.” The government is expected to act soon on a campaign pledge to reform the educational system by allowing state-owned schools to opt out of the control of local education authorities if parents disagree with their policies. And Thatcher also intends to continue her campaign to sell off state enterprises: the latest candidates for privatization include Britain’s water boards and parts of the country’s postal service. Asked during a television interview if she now looked forward to winning a record fourth term, the prime minister replied, “You can never foretell in life what will happen.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.