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?