Margaret Thatcher was the most successful Prime Minister of the 20th century. In the beginning though her party didn’t want her. She only stood because nobody else was brave enough and in 1975 she became leader by accident. Events would take her all the way to Number 10. Is Jeremy Corbyn on the same path?
This week plans for a new statue of Margaret Thatcher outside the commons were shelved. Today, we often view her as an inevitable political force, destined to become Prime Minister and to radically alter Britain. But back in 1975, Thatcher, like Corbyn, threw her hat into the race, with nobody, not even the people who ended up voting for her, expecting her to win. I’ve written about Corbyn’s 45 Minutes That Changed The Course Of History – How 200/1 Corbyn Made It Onto The Leadership Ballot here, but now i will turn to Thatcher’s rise.
The Most Unpopular Woman In Britain
By the Autumn of 1974 the Tories had experienced their second defeat of the year, and Heath had lost three out of the last four elections. Yet there was no clear mechanism for removing him as leader. In echoes of Corbyn in 2016, the party had lost faith in Heath’s leadership but he refused to step down. The new leadership rules specified a procedure for selecting a leader when a vacancy occurred, but made no provision for challenging a leader who didn’t want to go.
Coming just 3 days after the October 1974 election defeat, it would be Edward Du Cann who first challenged Heath’s authority, by organising the 1922 Committee to pressure Heath into holding a ballot. Heath continued to resist, offering Du Cann a place in the cabinet. It was at this point that ‘the men in grey suits’ told Heath he needed to face a leadership challenge. Heath asked the former Tory PM Alec Douglas-Holme to put together a blueprint for a contest, and he was shocked when he returned with a bold proposition. A challenger would only need two nominations to stand, but would require a victory of 15% or more in order to prevent a contest going to a second ballot.
Heath’s enemies rejoiced as the party announced that nominations would close on the 30th January with the first round of voting to be held on the 4th February 1975. The Tory establishment needed a ‘stalking horse’ candidate to test the water. They believed Willie Whitelaw was the man to take the party forward, yet he wanted to bide his time before challenging Heath. With no ‘stalking horse’ forthcoming, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph looked to put their own campaign team together. Back then, Thatcher dreamed of becoming Britain’s first ever female Chancellor, with the top job seemingly still out of reach for a woman.
Until this point, Margaret Thatcher had only ever courted negative media attention, particularly on the back of her decision to scrap free school milk in 1971. A cost cutting measure, it earned her the nickname ‘Milk Snatcher’ and it even prompted The Sun to ask “Is Thatcher Human?” before anointing her “The Most Unpopular Woman in Britain”. After the experience she aligned herself with Keith Joseph, the man many expected to become the next Conservative leader. Joseph had become the standard bearer for a new strand of Conservative political thought, based on monetarist economic policies and need for a smaller state. This was a radical change from the party orthodoxy, who under Ted Heath had looked to continue the post war consensus of maintaining full employment.
In September 1974, Keith Joseph made the first prominent speech that looked to break the party away from the post war consensus. Joseph claimed it was time to control inflation by cutting the money supply, urging the government to stop ‘inventing’ temporary jobs to bring unemployment down. The Times reprinted the speech in full under the headline ‘The Sharp Shock Of Truth’. Yet the party were still not on board, and Joseph had only one key ally in cabinet; Margaret Thatcher. As momentum grew towards his leadership bid, Thatcher eyed up the key role of his campaign manager.
Events would change everything. A month later, Joseph made another infamous speech, this time to the Edgbaston Conservative Association. It would be a catastrophic and fatal misjudgment. He argued that the permissive society was undermining the ‘human stock’. Joseph lamented teenage mothers arguing;
“They are producing problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, sub-normal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters. Yet these mothers, the under-twenties in many cases, single parents, from classes 4 and 5, are now producing a third of all births. A high proportion of these births are a tragedy for the mother, the child and for us…Yet proposals to extend birth-control facilities to these classes of people, particularly the young unmarried girls, the potential young unmarried mothers, evokes entirely understandable moral opposition. Is it not condoning immorality?”.
Many took the speech as a coded argument for sterilising ‘feral’ teens to prevent further cohabitation. While Joseph always denied this had been the aim, he knew he could no longer challenge Heath. Thatcher might just have backed the wrong horse. She was dismayed when Joseph pulled out, but told him “Look Keith, if your not going to stand, i will, because someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand.”
By the end of 1974, it was becoming evident that the centre was no longer going to hold. The left and right were beginning to develop their alternative strategies, with Tony Benn on the opposite end to Joseph for the Labour party. Both had a remedy for Britain’s terminal economic decline, and Thatcher knew her wing couldn’t sit back and wait. Edward Du Cann, however, remained the clear favourite to challenge Heath, but when concerns were raised over his personal finances, he too withdrew from the race. Cannily Thatcher acquired the services of his campaign manager, Airey Neave, who had made it his mission to remove Heath from the top of the party.
Ted Heath looked to damage Thatcher with a classic Tory smear campaign, using his contacts in Fleet Street. A few years previously Thatcher had given an interview were she claimed it was a good idea for housewives to stock up on food supplies, before inflation took effect on prices. This allowed the media to portray her as a ‘hoarder’ of food, which in the aftermath of the war was still seen as a minor scandal. The Tory establishment looked to whip up a furore over the issue, and the ex chief whip of the party, Michael Redman, warned against the public following her lead. Thatcher resorted to inviting journalists to her home to asses the contents of the cupboards. According to a Daily Express article from Nov 1975 ‘I’M NOT A HOARDER—JUST A PRUDENT HOUSEWIFE’
“Mrs Thatcher, a contender for the Tory Party leadership, angered housewives and MPs in a magazine article in which she said she had been stockpiling tinned food for ‘some time’.And Left-Wing Labour MP Mr Dennis Skinner gleefully seized on the subject in the Commons. He asked Mr Wilson to extend the wealth tax to include food hoarders”.
Then the manager of her local grocery store claimed: ‘Mrs Thatcher normally uses our delicatessen counter. I’ve never seen her checking out with a trolley loaded to the brim.’ Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s stockpile angered the 20,000-strong National Housewives’ Association. Chairman Mrs Sandra Brookes said: ‘We are horrified and we plan to visit Mrs Thatcher and tell her so. ‘She is setting a very bad example to the country’s women. It creates a feeling of panic and unsettles people.’
Whitelaw remained the real challenger to Heath, and Neave worked hard to play down Thatcher’s chances of winning on the first ballot. While in 2015 Labour MPs put Corbyn on the ballot to ‘broaden the debate’, many Tories voted for Thatcher to give Heath a fright and bounce him into a resignation. Norman Tebbit even managed to persuade Michael Heseltine to vote for Thatcher, in order to trigger a Second Ballot and put Heseltine’s ally Willie Whitelaw, in charge.
The Economist, claimed Thatcher was “precisely the sort of candidate who ought to be able to stand, and lose harmlessly.” While Enoch Powell, who had been one of the initial advocates of monetarism, claimed she would never win; “They wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent”. As a result, Heath enjoyed the support of every newspaper and Tory journal, with only The Spectator coming out to support Thatcher.
The day before the ballot, The Times gleefully reported that Heath had the numbers to win, and the bookies made Thatcher a 6/1 outsider to win the race. As a stalking horse candidate, Thatcher was expected to test the water. It was with utter disbelief that the Heathites viewed the result of the first ballot. Thatcher polled 130 votes with Heath receiving only 119. There were another 19 votes for the third candidate Hugh Fraser, but it meant a second ballot would be required to decide the winner. Heath immediately resigned as leader.
Thatcher The Hatchet
After fulfilling her role as a ‘stalking horse’, many within the Tory party expected Whitelaw to become leader. Whitelaw now announced his attention to stand, as Geoffrey Howe, Jim Prior and John Peyton also entered the race. Fraser withdrew and threw his support behind Whitelaw. With the establishment back in the contest, the media expected Thatcher to crash out and Whitelaw immediately picked up endorsements from The Sun, The Times and The Express.
On the day of her election, The Guardian wrote “Mrs Thatcher deserves much credit for her showing in the first ballot and she will probably do well today: but if the combined Whitelaw-Prior-Howe-Peyton forces secure a majority over her, the supposition should be that she has failed to establish her brand of conservatism as a basis from which to lead her party effectively or appeal to the country at large.”
Momentum had shifted towards Thatcher and a week after the first ballot she won the second, receiving a total of 146 votes, as the favourite Whitelaw clocked in with only 79. She reached the finishing line with 7 votes to spare. The Guardian later reported “there was frank astonishment at Westminster when the result of the ballot of Tory MPs was announced.” A senior Tory emerged from the counting room shouting “My God – The bitch has won!”
Reflecting later, Shirley Williams said “Almost nobody expected her to get elected as leader, and many of the people who voted for her did not consider her a chance to win. Its very important to realise that, as she was recipient of a large number of votes not actually intended for her.”
Indeed Thatcher had no allies within the party, and much like Corbyn there was no major groupings to immediately support her. Her cabinet would remain similar to Heath’s at first. She didn’t know it then, but the monetarists who would conquer the new world had found their champion. The Labour party meanwhile rubbed their hands with glee. The Guardian reported that First Lady will put the Tories Right, and claimed ‘”the assumption among Labour MPs that Mrs Thatcher’s election will prove a bonus for the Government was being vigorously denied by Tory MPs”.
Yet Barbara Castle felt it was time for a female Prime Minister, claiming “She has lent herself with grace and charm to every piece of photographers’ gimmickry, but don’t we all when the prize is big enough?… She is in love; in love with power, success and with herself… If we have to have Tories, good luck to her.” Shirley Williams added that “I can’t help admitting to being pleased to see that in the Tory Party of all parties a woman has broken through. This is a staggering thing for them.”
The day after her election, Whitelaw addressed the Tory party in Winchester in tears, and many Tories wondered what a mistake they had made. In 2015, everybody made the same mistake with Jeremy Corbyn. From the Labour MPs who claimed ‘‘The right of the party should have nothing to fear from Jeremy. It would be good for the left of the party to see just how few votes would be cast.’ to the Tory journalists who urged Tories should join Labour and back Jeremy Corbyn, we have all misjudged his current rise to power.
Only yesterday Tony Blair prodded the Corbynite cage, by claiming “I actually think at the beginning of the campaign, we were going to be routed. I think what happened was as much to do with the Tory campaign as with our campaign.” As the old order begins to make way for the new again, perhaps Corbyn and the left should be doing something that is alien to them; Looking to Margaret Thatcher for inspiration.