YP Margaret Thatcher: My Part In Her Downfall

published in the Yorkshire Post 15 April 2013

When Margaret Thatcher lost her party’s leadership in 1990, the fatal blow to her was a poll in The Mail On Sunday. I know, because I devised it.

Under its ebullient and independent-minded editor, Stewart Steven, the newspaper had become a vocal supporter of Michael Heseltine. When Heseltine finally challenged Thatcher, he naturally commissioned an opinion poll to establish how much difference his leadership would make to his party’s ratings with voters. At my suggestion, we did not commission our pollsters, MORI, to do a national poll. Instead, it was confined to the fifty-or-so Conservative marginal constituencies which provided its then Commons majority.

I admit now that this was a distinction without a difference. These selected battleground seats (excluding safe seats on either side) could be expected to show much the same response as a national poll. At that time, the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher personally were at a very low ebb in national polls. Labour had held double-digit leads for most of the year (over 20 per cent at the peak of protests against poll tax), and in October 1990 Thatcher was trailing Neil Kinnock by around 12 or 13 percentage points. During that month the Liberal Democrats seized the normally safe Tory seat of Eastbourne. More important, the economic news that month was all bad: falling output, rising unemployment and inflation edging up.

This was the context for Mrs Thatcher’s calamitous month of party strife in November, triggered by the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe, and the challenge of Heseltine.

The Mail on Sunday poll of Tory marginals produced the predictable but gratifying suggestion that all of them would be retained if Heseltine took over and all would be lost if Thatcher remained leader. Page 3 of the newspaper (on Sunday 18 November 1990) was devoted to mugshots of the Tory MPs whose seats would be saved by Heseltine. The following Tuesday, in the leadership ballot of Tory MPs, Thatcher fell just short of the majority she needed to avoid a second round. She won a disappointing 204 votes out of a possible 372. A number of loyalists are known to have deserted her to save their political necks. After two days of melodrama, Thatcher abandoned her resolve to “fight to win” and resigned.

In the second round of the contest, with Heseltine now facing John Major and Douglas Hurd, Stewart Steven was eager to repeat the poll in Tory marginals. I urged him not to (for his candidate’s sake) – with Thatcher removed and new choices offered to voters, anything might happen. However, the poll went ahead, and sure enough, it gave a faint lead to John Major over Michael Heseltine, who thereby lost his greatest asset among wavering Tory MPs. Major won the second ballot by 185 to Heseltine’s 131: Hurd trailed with 56 votes. Heseltine could have insisted on a run-off ballot against Major: wisely he did not, settling for a recall to government with the task of replacing the toxic poll tax.

Thatcher at the time commented, with some point, that she had won 19 more votes than Major but been forced to step aside. Major justified his supporters’ faith in him, when the Tories won more votes in the 1992 General Election than any other political party before or since, although it was not reflected in his Parliamentary majority.

I think that Margaret Thatcher might have survived but for that marginal poll and that dramatic page 3. If so, I believe that she would have won the general election of 1991 or 1992, especially if it had been held in the wake of the first Gulf War. She would still have enjoyed the advantages of a split opposition and a Labour party which was still distrusted over the economy and over its general competence to run the country.

If my suggestion played a part in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, I accept neither credit nor blame. It was a sign of the nerves in her party that such an exercise could induce MPs to desert the leader who had redefined it and reshaped British politics.

One footnote to this episode. After Margaret Thatcher’s departure, The Mail On Sunday asked me to find out why the Conservatives had introduced the curious rule which had allowed Major and Hurd to become candidates in the second round. I telephoned Lord Home of the Hirsel, who as Sir Alec-Douglas Hume, had presided in 1965 over the creation of the election system which was to choose his successor. His telephone number (as I remember) was Coldstream 1234. His lordship answered the instrument in person and listened politely as I introduced myself and put my question. After a short pause he gave me a delightful answer: “I think it was felt at the time that some of the chaps might find it inconvenient to come to London at short notice.” I still treasure that memory of a vanished era of grouse-moor leadership.

16. April 2013 by rkh
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