The Fall of Thatcher - she could have held on

Lord Baker provides an important insight into why the exit of Margaret Thatcher proved such a trauma for the Conservative party.

Terrible events that are foreseen can be prepared for. But a sudden wound cuts deeper and heals slower. To my surprise Margaret Thatcher’s final party chairman told me the November 1990 act of “matricide” was “unexpected”.

I was surprised because with hindsight it is a very obvious fall. In 1989 her Chancellor Nigel Lawson resigns. Shortly afterwards she faces a stalking horse challenge from a backbencher. Given the next year saw Poll tax riots it seems pretty obvious that here was a long serving leader heading for the trap door.

Not so says Baker. He remembers 1990 as an OK year for the government. He’d seen it as his main task as chairman to get Thatcher through the year without facing another challenge. Over the summer Labour’s poll lead had diminished. He was sure the party would win a general election in 1991 - Thatcher he reckoned, was always going to beat Kinnock. All was quiet on the Heseltine front. The party conference had ended to chants of ten more years. Instead Thatcher was to last less than ten weeks.

The reason - not some sudden event or ideological eruption from her opponents - but her personal treatment of Geoffrey Howe. A year after demoting him from Foreign Secretary to the non job of Deputy Prime Minster, Thatcher turned on him in a cabinet meeting over the parliamentary timetable. Baker says it was “embarrassing” - and the all male cabinet sheltered from the tirade by looking down at their blotters.

Howe promptly quit - as Thatcher’s foreign affairs adviser Charles Powell immediately predicted in the aftermath of the row - and went on to deliver the devastating cricket bats and conflict of loyalties resignation speech. 

The speech itself blamed the Prime minister’s attitude to Europe as the reason for his walk out. But Baker highlights resentment at years of ill treatment - especially Thatcher’s decision to remove Howe’s grace and favour home when he left the Foreign Office. It left Whitehall struggling to find somewhere for the longest serving member of Thatcher’s cabinet to live. Thatcher mistook Howe’s placid personality and ability to soak up the hair dryer treatment for weakness. She whispered to Baker as Howe essentially called for her to go, “I never thought he’d do it.”

But even after she’d provoked a rebellion from the most senior - in terms of pedigree - member of her government - Thatcher failed, or refused to see the danger. Once Heseltine saw Howe provide the opening, he challenged. But she refused to campaign, despite the entreaties of Baker. Schmoozing MPs was now beneath her. Heseltine humbled himself assiduously. She failed to win by a sufficient majority - although more MPs backed her than recently backed Boris Johnson - and the cabinet one by one told her she was heading for defeat. 

In a matter of days the most successful Conservative Prime minister had been thrown out, her all too public tears witness to the sudden nature of her removal. “Matricide” had seemed inconceivable only a month before - and only happened thanks to the actions of the victim.

Ben Monro-Davies