What if Margaret Thatcher had carried on as Prime Minister after 1990?

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'Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on...'
‘Having beaten Mr Heseltine, I intend to go on and on and on…’
The Twitter account Majorsrise is currently marking the upcoming 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister by tweeting in real-time the various bits of news and political intrigue that led up to it. It’s a fascinating look back at a period that still seems recent to me, but is now very much a different time. It’s interesting to watch the events play out as what now seems inevitable to us clearly wasn’t at the time, and at this point – just a couple of weeks before her resignation – speculation was about when the next election would be, not who might be the Prime Minister at the end of the month.

Let’s assume for the purposes of discussion that she manages to survive the challenge of Michael Heseltine in the leadership election. There are a number of ways this could happen such as her appointing a better campaign manager than Peter Morrison, or Heseltine saying something ill-advised in the run-up to the vote that could leave her secure as party leader and Prime Minister, at least for the short term. (It’s worth remembering that she beat Heseltine in the vote, but fell short of the majority she needed to avoid a second ballot)

The Tories were already recovering from their polling lows under her leadership (see Anthony Wells’ graphs from the period) and there’s no reason to think that she wouldn’t have received a similar popularity boost to John Major’s after the First Gulf War was completed. Would she have had the courage to do what Major didn’t do and try to ride that wave of popularity into an election in April or May of 1991? We know now that the polling from that period was inaccurately overstating Labour support and underestimating Conservative support, so the potential would be there for her to win an unprecedented fourth successive election. However, whatever the result, what follows is interesting to consider:

A fourth Thatcher victory – military victory making voters ignore their problems with her – opens up a couple of possible outcomes, probably dependent on the size of the majority. Something like Major’s 1992 majority would probably force her to be more magnanimous in victory and bring Heseltine back into the Cabinet, possibly with a plan for her to step down in 1993 or 1994. A victory closer to the existing majority, however, could be seen as vindication heralding a swing to the right.

An election defeat – military victory not enough to overcome voters’ doubts about her and the Tories – not only brings Neil Kinnock to Downing Street, but makes things very different for the Tories in the future. Losing an election allows Heseltine to say ‘I told you so’ and take the leadership when she inevitably steps down but also neutralises the Thatcherite brand for a while as it’s proven to be fallible at the ballot box.

Finally, a hung Parliament likely gives Paddy Ashdown an ‘instrument of excruciating torture’ from the electorate nineteen years before Nick Clegg. Twenty or so Liberal Democrats are just as likely to be victims of electoral circumstance and find that they can only give stability to one party in Parliament, but could he lead his party into coalition with either Thatcher or Kinnock, and would gaining twenty MPs be enough of a boon to either to make them want to try?

What do you think would have happened if Thatcher had survived Heseltine’s challenge?

3 thoughts on “What if Margaret Thatcher had carried on as Prime Minister after 1990?”

  1. I think most interesting to speculate how the ERM crisis would have played out. Would a Thatcher government stayed in until the bitter end, or would it have come out early enough – even before the Danish referendum – to have kept some semblance of economic competence? I suspect that, once in, Thatcher might have been a bitter-ender. So she could have been forced out in 1992, but this time by the right, perhaps, losing her eurosceptic legacy along the way.

  2. She might still have lost. People were getting tired of her. She was becoming weird and worrying. The Gulf War boost might well have been very small given that people already knew she could be a decisive and successful war leader and the lead in the Gulf was clearly American. It helped Major a bit because people knew little about him and he seemed nice but possibly weak. I just can’t see the Thatcher of that time giving ground to her enemies within the party, which would have left able people “outside the tent pissing in”, to use Lyndon Johnson’s expressive metaphor.

    I think the mood of the electors might well have been like that of the French when they voted down De Gaulle – “Enough”. Her main weapon, and I don’t like saying this because I respect him a lot, would have been Neil Kinnock, who for all his ability never really SEEMED like a Prime Minister to the English.

    One of the questions your question leads to is what would have happened with a Kinnock government in 1992, and that could have turned history in very different directions. If instead Thatcher had won in 1992, would we have had Black Wednesday? If not, I think Thatcher’s increasing inflexibility would still have led to open divisions and revolts which would have weakened her government.

    Had Paddy Ashdown found himself holding the balance of power after the defeat of a hugely long-lasting and divisive Conservative government, he’d have been in a much better position than Nick Clegg was. A coalition with Labour would have been no big surprise and if the PM who’d lost a majority was Thatcher, it would simply have reflected the fact that while she was around, the main division in UK politics was for or against Thatcher.

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