What really brought down Margaret Thatcher?

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8 November
10:46
November
2016

In May 1990 Margaret Thatcher completed eleven years as prime minister, the longest unbroken term in office since the 1820s. But by the end of that year, she had been deposed by her own MPs. What went so wrong?

There were three factors.

First, senior Conservatives were worried by her growing hostility to closer political and economic ties with Europe. As prime minister she had never been supportive, but as Europe moved towards greater integration – at a time when the communist threat was declining – she ramped up the rhetoric. "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level," she insisted in her 1988 Bruges speech.

The following year, the chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, resigned over the issue, and in 1990 her longest serving cabinet colleague, Geoffrey Howe, did the same, triggering the leadership election that removed her from office.

Second, there was the poll tax, a new system of local government taxation that meant everyone paid the same flat fee. Its introduction sparked riots and non-payment campaigns, but it wasn’t just violent demonstrators who were opposed; the poll tax also aroused hostility among many Tory voters, who stood to lose out.

"Britain looked as if it were going backwards to the bad old days"

And third, the economy was again sliding into serious recession, with rising unemployment and inflation and falling house prices. Unlike the recession of the early 1980s, this one struck the South-East as well as the North, striking into Conservative heartlands. And it struck too at the narrative of the economic miracle: Britain looked as if it were going backwards to the bad old days.

It was, to adapt a later Tory slogan, a triple whammy. By the summer of 1990 Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party was fifteen points ahead in the polls. It seemed that Thatcher – despite her hat trick of election victories – had become an electoral liability. She still enjoyed the support of party activists, but not of voters, and the Conservatives – unlike Labour – tend to be sensitive to the distinction.

In the 1990 leadership election, only MPs were entitled to vote. Some opposed her on pro-European principle; more wanted simply to protect their seats. It worked. Her successor, John Major, went on to win a fourth successive general election for the party in 1992, securing the Thatcherite revolution. ‘Margaret Thatcher buried old Labour,’ said Tory MP Tristan Garel-Jones, ‘but John Major laid a lump of granite on the grave.’ 

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