BRITAIN'S IRON LADY FALLS VICTIM TO A POLITICAL COUP AFTER 11 ½ YEARS IN POWER
It could almost have been a routine day in Britain’s House of Commons. There was Margaret Thatcher last Thursday afternoon, eyes flashing and finger stabbing the air as she defended her record and eviscerated her political opponents with well-practised expertise. “I’m enjoying this, I’m enjoying this,” she exclaimed at one point. Thatcher’s, vigor and skill seemed undiminished, but an opposition MP suddenly called out with a sharp reminder that it was far from an ordinary session. “Why have they sacked you?” he shouted. Only six hours earlier, Thatcher, 65, had bowed to overwhelming pressure within her own cabinet and abruptly announced that she intended to resign as prime minister. With that, she set in motion a process that, within a week, would have her stepping out of 10 Downing Street, a new prime minister moving in—and a political age formally ending.
Thatcher’s resignation after IIV2 years of turbulent rule was the stuff of both high drama and low politics. Throughout the 1980s, she bestrode her party and her country like no other leader since Winston Churchill, preaching the message of radical conservatism that bore her name. But in barely 36 hours last week, she suffered a stinging rebuke in a leadership contest from her once-loyal members of Parliament and was forced to abandon her campaign to fight on against the odds. Ultimately, she fell victim to what amounted to a political coup within her own government, as men she had elevated to power lined up to tell her that she did not have enough support to remain leader. At 9 a.m. last Thursday, she told her cabinet that she would step aside and open up the leadership race to other candidates. Some of those present later said that she had reflected sadly on having to quit, despite winning three consecutive elections, and declared, “It’s a funny old world.”
Force: For nearly all Britons, the development was a stunning one. For more than a year, Thatcher’s government had trailed the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls, and the idea that the Thatcher era was drawing to a close had become commonplace. But Thatcher so dominated the political scene by sheer force of personality that all the early signs of her demise barely softened the shock (page 40). On the morning of her announcement, hundreds of people gathered outside the tall iron gates of Downing Street, waiting for a glimpse of her black Daimler limousine as it flashed past, taking her to see the Queen and then to
Parliament. Announcers in London’s subway system broke the news to commuters.
But Thatcher had become deeply unpopular in recent months, and there were plainly more cheers than tears at her going. Kathy Dickens, a 79-year-old pensioner, shook a handbell outside Thatcher’s official residence and told anyone who would listen, “It’s the best news I’ve had in ages.” An old man walking his dog on a London street exclaimed to no one in particular, “We’ve gotten rid of the bitch!”
For Thatcher herself, it was a humiliating
end. For months, her government had lurched from one disaster to another, and a growing number of Conservatives had implored her to step down gracefully and let the party choose a new leader. But Thatcher had dismissed their appeals and vowed to fight—and win—an unprecedented fourth election victory. Her confidence did not appear to waver even when her archrival in the Tory party, former defence minister Michael Heseltine, announced on Nov. 14 that he would challenge her in last week’s leadership vote. So assured was Thatcher of retaining her party’s support that
she did not even stay in the country throughout the brief, six-day campaign. Instead, she gave a handful of newspaper interviews and then flew off as scheduled to Paris to attend a summit meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).
It was there, in an upstairs bedroom of Britain’s gilded embassy in Paris, that she learned the result that sealed her fate. In the leadership vote last Tuesday, 204 Conserva-
tive MPs supported her, while 152 backed Heseltine and 16 abstained. It was a majority, but not enough for an outright victory under the Tory party’s complex voting rules, and it was a clear sign that she no longer had the confidence of her party.
Contest: Thatcher immediately announced that she would contest the second round of voting this week. But she was fatally wounded, and her fellow political leaders at the CSCE meeting plainly sensed that it might well be the last time that they would meet her as Britain’s leader. At the summit’s closing session on the
morning after the vote, Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers and Canada’s Brian Mulroney, among others, gently squeezed her arm in gestures of sympathy. Mulroney said later, “There was sadness for her and good wishes for her.”
Thatcher cut short her stay in Paris and rushed back to London, but by then her remaining support was rapidly slipping away. Some MPs who had voted for her on the first ballot out
of loyalty announced that they were rethinking their position in light of Heseltine’s unexpectedly strong showing and opinion polls demonstrating that he would dramatically improve the Conservatives’ popularity. Other MPs voiced concerns that even if Thatcher managed a narrow victory over her rival, their party would be so fatally divided that it would not be able to recover its lost popularity and defeat Labour in the next general election, which must be held by July, 1992. However, none of that appeared to have any effect on Thatcher, who replaced her campaign manager and defiantly
declared: “I fight on. I fight to win.”
But behind her public determination, Thatcher’s will to continue was rapidly confronting reality. Throughout Wednesday, she consulted senior party figures, known in Tory parlance as the “men in the grey suits.” That evening, she met her cabinet ministers one by one in her office at the House of Commons. She asked them to frankly assess her chances. According to later reports, all but two of the 19
‘THATCHERISM,’ SAYS ONE ANALYST, ‘HAD EXHAUSTED ITS REPERTOIRE'
ministers told her that while they would vote for her, they did not think that she would win the scheduled runoff vote against Heseltine.
For Thatcher, that would have been the worst outcome of all. Her political allies have said that at all costs she wished to avoid turning over the Tory leadership, and the prime minister’s office that would automatically go with it as long as the Conservatives hold their majority in the Commons, to Heseltine. Nicknamed “Tarzan” for his mane of flowing grey-blond hair and flamboyant personal style, the 57year-old Heseltine had abruptly quit as Thatcher’s defence secretary in January, 1986, in a dispute over his plan to rescue the ailing British helicopter manufacturer Westland PLC by selling it to an all-European consortium rather than letting it fall into the hands of an American-led partnership. Since then, he had pursued an undeclared leadership campaign against Thatcher, frequently criticizing her policies in veiled terms while working hard on behalf of local Conservative candidates.
Thatcher showed disdain for Heseltine's ambition and believed that his brand of conservatism, which would allow a wider role for government in managing the economy, posed a threat to her brand of strict “Thatcherist” economics. In a controversial interview with The Times of London before last week’s vote,
Thatcher accused Heseltine of advocating policies closer to those of socialism than to her conception of conservatism. Many of Heseltine’s policies, she said, are “more akin to some of the Labour Party policies: intervention, corporatism, everything that’s pulled us down. There is a fundamental difference on economics and there’s no point in trying to hide it.” Dilemma: Thatcher’s dilemma was that while she remained a candidate, other top ministers would not enter the leadership race out of loyalty to her. Her advisers apparently persuaded her that only by stepping aside could she allow them to run—and avoid a Heseltine
victory. Within two hours of Thatcher’s resignation announcement, two of her most senior and respected ministers, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major, entered the race. That set up the situation whereby the 372 Tory MPs had to choose among the three men in the Nov. 27 balloting and, in the absence of a majority victory then, in a final showdown vote two days later.
The circumstances of Thatcher’s departure enraged many of her closest supporters. For them, the pressure exerted by her own cabinet on a prime minister who had swept her party to three consecutive victories amounted to nothing less than betrayal. Edward (Teddy) Taylor, an ardently pro-Thatcher MP, declared, “I’m very angry at this rather nasty conspiracy.” Norman Tebbit, a former Tory party chairman who was one of Thatcher’s closest supporters, said that ministers had abandoned principle
simply because they were afraid of losing their seats in the next election. He added, “The party feels very guilty, very sick and very ashamed of what it’s done.” Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, a journalist in London, struck a personal note: “It is the most gutless act of treachery after all she’s done.”
Thatcher’s withdrawal, most analysts maintained last week, was a marked setback to Heseltine’s chances of succeeding her. They added that the candidacies of Hurd and Major gave anti-Thatcher Tories other choices and would erode Heseltine’s support. Among the three men, Heseltine has been the most vocal in advocating more enthusiastic British participation in the European Community, the most divisive issue in the Tory party (page 42). And from his position outside the cabinet, Heseltine was openly critical of many aspects of Thatcher’s widely hated poll tax, the per capita local government charge that is considered an electoral millstone by many Conservatives. The tax, imposed last April, was in many ways a personal cause for Thatcher.
Long after other Tories advocated radically altering it or abandoning it
completely, she continued to maintain that voters would eventually come to accept it. As soon as Hurd and Major announced their candidacies, both said that they were prepared to review the tax.
As they prepared to choose their new leader, and Britain’s new prime minister, Conservatives were plainly weighing several factors. Polls rated Heseltine the most popular leader among voters, and he represented the clearest break with Thatcher’s legacy. But many Conservatives resent him for his role in initiating her demise. Two local party activists last week chained themselves to the gates outside Heseltine’s London home and displayed a sign read-
ing: “Maggie made us great. You have destroyed us.” Hurd, 60, offered continuity with Thatcher in most policies, as well as a more flexible approach and a more pro-European attitude. As for Major, some observers contended that he did not have enough experience for the top job. At 47 the youngest candidate, he was capable of giving the Tories a fresh face for the next decade. His tough anti-inflationary approach as Thatcher’s finance minister and reports that he was her personal favorite made him the choice of the party’s right wing.
Style: But despite their policy differences, none of the candidates fits the Thatcher mould. As much as by any particular policies, the Thatcher years were characterized by her unmistakable personal style. She spurned the cozy politics of compromise and positively embraced divisiveness if it advanced her causes. That is almost certain to end with her tenure. Whoever replaces Thatcher, wrote Peter Jenkins of London’s daily newspaper The Independent, “the style of government on offer will be
different—more collective and consensual: farewell ‘conviction politics.’ ”
If the style cannot endure, neither is it certain what lasting changes Thatcherism has wrought. Her supporters say that her enduring legacy will include privatization of many state-owned enterprises, curbs on trade union power and the spread of so-called popular capitalism through wider ownership of houses and company shares. They also credit her staunch Cold Warrior stance with helping to part the Iron Curtain. Until about 18 months ago, they could also convincingly cite other important gains: bringing inflation down to a low of 2.4 per cent by mid-1986 from 10.3 per cent in 1979; making British business more competitive internationally; and dramatically improving Britain’s standing in the world.
Assault: But ever since she blew out the candles on the cake at the party marking her 10th anniversary in
power in May, 1989, those gains have seriously deteriorated. Britain’s inflation now stands at 10.9 per cent, twice the European average and higher than when she took office. The country is running a persistent deficit in its manufacturing trade, a sign of declining competitiveness. And its influence in world councils has shrunk because of both economic difficulties and its troubled relations with its European partners. Perhaps most ironically, and despite Thatcher’s rhetorical assault on government spending, taxes actually absorbed a greater share of the national output at the end of her tenure (37 per cent) than at the beginning (34 per cent).
Thatcher’s outright failures have become
more evident as well. Most Britons seemed willing to tolerate her radical measures for much of the 1980s because they saw them as necessary to shake the country out of its collectivist complacency. But the public mood
had shifted markedly by the closing years of the decade. Britons paid increasing attention to the decline of their roads, hospitals and schools through lack of public investment. They grew more openly concerned about the increasing numbers of homeless people sleeping in the streets of central London, and the filth and
chaos gradually overtaking the capital city.
Even after a decade of hectoring, Thatcher had not changed many basic public attitudes that she had sought to alter: at the end of her time in office, surveys showed that considerably more people than when she took power favored increasing government services, even at the cost of higher taxes. Thatcher herself began to seem outdated. “One started to sense that Thatcherism was no longer the flavor of the age about 18 months ago,” said David Marquand, professor of politics in suburban Manchester’s University of Salæ ford. “It had exhausted its repertoire.” £ Energy: Thatcher herself is far g from exhausted, as her fiery valedic5 tory performance in Parliament last
1 week clearly showed. The Oxfordeducated daughter of a Grantham gro-
2 cer still displays astounding energy ^ and routinely works 16-hour days,
polls seven days a week. She once said that being prime minister “is totally absorbing—to do it is enough, but to want to do it and to love doing it is everything.” For someone with such undiminished drive, a quiet retirement is unthinkable. Several years ago, she and her husband of 39 years, Denis, purchased a comfortable home in the prosperous south London district of Dulwich. There is no obvious role for a former prime minister, but some observers speculated that she might give up her Commons seat, accept a peerage and a position in the House of Lords. But no one in British politics last week was predicting that they had heard the last of Margaret Thatcher.