Thatcher failed to win outright in the first ballot, and was persuaded to withdraw from the second round of voting. This marked the end of her eleven-year premiership and resulted in the election of John Major, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, as her successor.
Discontent with Thatcher's leadership of the party had been growing over the latter years of her tenure. In 1989, she had been challenged for the leadership for the first time since her election in 1975, by the backbench MP Sir Anthony Meyer. Thatcher faced no serious threat of losing to this stalking horse challenger, but her political impregnability was undermined by the fact that sixty MPs had not voted for her.
Throughout 1990, Thatcher's popularity—and that of the Conservative government—waned considerably. There had been civil unrest over the introduction of the deeply unpopular Community Charge (labelled 'Poll Tax'), and a host of other problems—including differences within the Cabinet over Thatcher's perceived intransigence in her approach to the European Economic Community—combined to make the government's position increasingly difficult.
The event normally seen as the 'final straw' in the run-up to the contest is the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, on 1 November. This was a response to comments by Thatcher in the House of Commons on 31 October, when she criticised the vision of European integration espoused by the European Commission under Jacques Delors, characterising it as the path to a federal European superstate, and famously declared that her response to such a vision would be "No. No. No".
Howe did not make his resignation speech immediately because he had temporarily lost his voice. At the Lord Mayor's Banquet on 12 November Thatcher dismissed Howe's resignation by employing a cricketing metaphor:
I am still at the crease, though the bowling has been pretty hostile of late. And in case anyone doubted it, can I assure you there will be no ducking the bouncers, no stonewalling, no playing for time. The bowling's going to get hit all round the ground. That is my style.
The next day, Howe made his resignation speech from the backbenches, addressing his dismay at her approach and, famously responding to Thatcher's cricketing metaphor by employing one of his own:
It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.
Howe reinforced the change in general perception of Thatcher from the 'Iron Lady' to a divisive and confrontational figure. Within a week, another critic, former minister Michael Heseltine, had announced that he would challenge her for the leadership of the party.
Under the rules at the time, introduced in 1965 and modified in 1975, there would be a series of ballots, conducted by the 1922 Committee, with that committee's chairman, Cranley Onslow, serving as Returning Officer.
In the first round a candidate needed to win the backing of an absolute majority of MPs. In addition they needed to have a margin over their nearest rival of 15% of the total electorate. This latter rule had been modified from 15% of those voting in the 1975 review and was to prove a crucial distinction in the 1990 contest when Margaret Thatcher narrowly missed this new target.
If neither candidate achieved a sufficiently large majority, then a second ballot would take place the following week. Nominations would be re-opened and at this stage an absolute majority only would be required. If this did not happen then the top three candidates would go forward to a third round which would be held using the alternative vote system.
Because of this process, the first round was widely regarded as the real test of confidence in Thatcher. Many speculated that if she did not achieve outright victory then she would either be forced to step down and open up the field to others, or else suffer further challenges from heavyweight figures in the party. Although Heseltine was known to be a serious contender for the leadership in his own right, many saw him also fulfilling the role of a "stalking horse" to push Thatcher out and pave the way for victory by a third candidate in a later round.
|First Ballot: 20 November 1990|
|Second Ballot required|
Although receiving the support of a clear majority of MPs, Thatcher narrowly failed to achieve a lead over Heseltine that comprised at least 15% of the number of all Conservative MPs, abstentions and spoilt ballots included. (Had the contest been run on the pre 1975 rules she would have won outright at this stage.) The contest therefore had to move into a second ballot. Thatcher gave a short speech following the announcement of the result, declaring "I fight on; I fight to win."
Hurd and Major pledged their support, as did Cecil Parkinson, Kenneth Baker and ex-Cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley. Norman Tebbit, another ex-Cabinet minister, was part of her campaign team, along with John Wakeham. Thatcher's campaign manager, Peter Morrison, advised her to consult Cabinet members one by one. Cabinet ministers had decided before consulting Thatcher the line they would each take, which was that though they personally would support her in the second ballot, they thought that she would lose. Peter Lilley, William Waldegrave, John Gummer and Chris Patten stuck to this line. Kenneth Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, famously became the first of her ministers to advise her that she could not win but that he would support her as Prime Minister for another five or ten years. Malcolm Rifkind said she would not win and was unsure whether he could support her in the second ballot. Peter Brooke said he would support Thatcher whatever she chose to do and that she could win "with all guns blazing". Michael Howard doubted whether she could win but said he would campaign full-heartedly for her.
Thatcher therefore decided to withdraw her candidacy on Thursday 22 November 1990. As a result of this, two further candidates allowed themselves to be nominated: the Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and the Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major.
|Second Ballot: 27 November 1990|
|Third Ballot required|
Major, seen as relatively new blood in the government, secured a commanding lead of 185 votes to Michael Heseltine's 131 votes and Douglas Hurd's 56. Even so, this was technically a few votes short of a clear victory and a third round would have been held on Thursday 29 November 1990. However, within minutes of the result, Heseltine and Hurd withdrew from the contest in Major's favour. It was therefore announced by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Cranley Onslow, that no third round would be necessary, and that Major was elected unopposed.
John Major was declared the leader of the party on the evening of Tuesday 27 November 1990. Following Thatcher's formal resignation, HM The Queen invited Major to kiss hands the next day. Douglas Hurd was re-appointed as Foreign Secretary and Michael Heseltine returned to the Cabinet as Environment Secretary, a post he had held in the early 1980s. Both Hurd and Heseltine remained key figures during the Major government, Heseltine eventually rising to become Deputy Prime Minister in 1995.
Major's premiership began well, and he was credited with restoring a consensual style of Cabinet government after the years of forceful leadership under Margaret Thatcher. The First Gulf War in early 1991 contributed to strong public support. He secured some foreign policy successes in Europe, ratifying the Maastricht Treaty after securing an opt-out from the Social Chapter and the single currency, and he sprung a surprise victory in the 1992 election, securing a majority of 21 while polling more votes than any other party in British electoral history. Nevertheless the political tides soon turned and the massive Conservative defeat in 1997 was attributed, at least in part, to the perception of internal division which had first been exposed by the 1990 leadership election.
Some voting data taken from http://www.election.demon.co.uk/conleader.html