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Tuesday, 21 November, 2000, 14:57 GMT
Tories still missing Thatcher
Former Tory prime ministers Baroness Thatcher and John Major
Margaret Thatcher with her successor John Major
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Exactly ten years since the Conservatives committed matricide and dumped Margaret Thatcher they are still agonising over the act.

It was, without doubt, one of the most significant moments in post-war British politics.

A formidable prime minister with three election victories under her belt had suddenly lost the confidence of her party.

This was the woman held solely responsible for seeing off overly-powerful union bosses, winning the Falklands war, protecting Britain's interests in Europe, privatising the great, unwieldy state industries and spreading home and share ownership to the masses.

Alternatively, she was the prime minister who created mass unemployment, destroyed industries - most notably mining - isolated Britain in Europe and believed there was no such thing as society.

Either way, by November 1990 the Tories had come to see her as a liability.

Poll tax demonstrators
Poll tax was deeply damaging
The party always had a reputation for ruthlessness when it came to self-preservation.

And on 22 November 1990 they did what they thought was necessary to win the next election and in effect dumped one of their most successful leaders ever.


It had all started to go wrong for the prime minister long before then.

There was the poll tax, which she resolutely refused to abandon but which had sparked riots and was seen by most of her ministers as a huge electoral liability.

There was the growing rift over Europe and Geoffrey Howe's simmering resentment over her "No, no, no" approach, which saw him plunge the first dagger into her during his resignation speech.

And, of course, waiting in the wings was the man who was ready to deal the coup de grace - Michael Heseltine.

After months declaring he could "foresee no circumstances" under which he would challenge the prime minister, his vision suddenly cleared and he went for it.

On 20 November 1990, in the first ballot for the Tory leadership, he was defeated by 204 votes to 152. But thanks to the party's election rules, it was not enough to give Mrs (now Baroness) Thatcher outright victory.

The fact that she was at a summit in Paris at the time of the vote added to an impression that she wasn't taking the contest seriously.

The next day she confidently declared: "I fight on. I fight to win." What she didn't know was that it was already all over.

Iron Lady

On the evening of 21 November, a series of ministers filed in to Downing Street to tell their leader, regretfully - and, it is said, even tearfully in the case of John Gummer - that she would not win the second round.

The next day she told her cabinet that she was resigning. She recalls in her memoirs: "There was silence. Every now and then I would be overcome by the emotion of the occasion and give way to tears."

And a week later, as she was driven away from Downing Street for the last time as prime minister, the Iron Lady mask again gave way to tears.

It was the end of an era and a period during which Britain was undoubtedly transformed and which paved the way for the creation of New Labour.

Formner Tory deputy leader Michael Heseltine
Heseltine missed the ultimate prize
Michael Heseltine, now seen by many as a the man who assassinated the great leader, failed in his ultimate ambition and John Major took over.

He even went on to do what many thought was the impossible and narrowly win the 1992 election.

The recriminations started almost immediately after Mrs Thatcher's resignation, however.

The Daily Express, then a loyal supporter of the Tories, summed up what many were feeling with the headline: "What Have They Done." And it is the question many Tories still ask to this day.

ERM crisis

The most popular theory is that it would have done the party good to have lost the 1992 election.

It could then have spent time regrouping either under Mrs Thatcher - a view only die-hard Thatcherites cling to - or, far more likely, another leader such as Mr Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke or even John Major.

Meanwhile, the argument runs, Neil Kinnock's half-reformed Labour Party would have faced the inevitable "Black Wednesday" European exchange rate mechanism crisis, resorted to old-style tax and spend and run itself onto the rocks by 1997.

It is a great game of "what if?" which, ultimately, proves futile. Maybe Chancellor John Smith would have been sensational, maybe he would have taken over from Kinnock before the 1997 poll, maybe the Tories would have chosen the wrong leader.

The fact is, much of what Margaret Thatcher did has now been accepted on all sides.

Tony Blair admires her handbagging style and strong leadership and the New Labour government has refused to undo key parts of her legacy.

Some Labour backbenchers even argue that Mr Blair is "getting away" with doing things - such as privatisation of air traffic control - that she would never had dared contemplate.

The bottom line is, whatever people may think of Margaret Thatcher - and to this day she is as reviled as much as others love her - she remains one of the big figures in post-war British politics.

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See also:

21 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Thatcher: Assassins and successors
03 Nov 00 | UK Politics
MPs turned on by Thatcher?
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