In the autumn of 1974 the Conservative Party experienced the second of two electoral disappointments when the minority Labour Government, elected in February of that year, went back to the electorate in October and was returned with a small majority. The leader of the Conservative Party was one Edward Heath who had been in office since 1964, and having now fought four elections and lost three, his one experience of government from June 1970 to February 1974 had been somewhat fraught, and thus there was a groundswell of opinion within the party that it might be about time to think about appointing a new leader.
The question remained however as to how this groundswell of opinion could make itself heard. The point was that when Alec Douglas-Home resigned as leader in 1964, he responded to criticisms that had been raised regarding the mysterious manner in which he himself had emerged as Harold Macmillan's successor in 1963, by deciding to institute a formal election process. It was this election process that resulted in Heath becoming the leader of the party, but the trouble was that whilst these rules specified a procedure for selecting a leader as and when a vacancy occurred, they made no provision whatsoever for challenging a leader who was in post and didn't want to go. As it turned Heath was a man who was so overwhelmed by a sense of his own superiority, that he had simply had no intention of resigning.
2. The 1922 Committee
Heath might well have soldiered on almost indefinitely were it not for the fact that Edward du Cann, former Chairman of the Party and now Chairman of the 1922 Committee had other ideas. The relationship between du Cann and Heath can best be summed up in the words of Jim Prior; "He can't stand Ted; and Ted can't stand him". In the immediate aftermath of the October election Du Cann, who had political ambitions of his own, sensed blood and as soon as the results of the General Election were known on the 10th October 1974, he convened a meeting of the Executive Council of the 1922 Committee at his London home. The result of this meeting was to issue a statement that it was "the unanimous opinion of the Officers and Executive of the 1922 Committee that the Leader of the Party should resign".
Du Cann delivered this message to both William Whitelaw, the Party Chairman and to the Chief Whip Humphrey Atkin as well as to Heath himself and invited him to address the 1922 Committee on the subject.
Of course Heath had no intention of resigning, and his response to
this message was simply to ignore it on the basis that the Executive
Council had no legitimacy until it had been re-elected by the new
Parliament. This was simply a ploy on his part to buy enough time to get
his own people elected onto the key positions on the 1922 Committee.
Heath therefore began appealing to party unity and spreading gossip
casting doubt on Du Cann's financial probity in the hope that a slate
of Heath loyalists would be returned. The trouble was that Heath
couldn't find any one willing to even stand against du Cann, who was
thereby returned unopposed, and the entire committee were similarly
re-elected en masse.
Heath then tried to buy du Cann's support by offering him a position
in the Shadow Cabinet. Du Cann however declined the offer and Heath
was therefore forced to concede the principle of holding an election
for the leadership, since the alternative (that the 1922 Committee
made its views on the leadership public) would have been disastrous for the Party. A committee was therefore hastily established under the auspices of the former Party leader and Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home to formulate the rules under which this and future contests would be run. It was then announced that there would be an election for the leadership, nominations would close on the 30th January with the first round of voting to be held on the 4th February 1975.
3. The contenders
The way was now clear for someone to challenge Heath, and indeed there was much speculation as to who might step forward. Enoch Powell might well have been a contender, but such was his disillusionment with Heath that he had earlier left the Party and was thus ineligible for consideration. The other leading figure on the right of the party was Keith Joseph, however he had made certain remarks during a speech at Edgbaston which had drawn a huge amount of criticism on his head (never mind that the remarks in question were in fact quotations from a report by the Child Poverty Action Group) and which had rather undermined his chances.
Other names that were mentioned at the time were those of Geoffrey Howe and John Peyton, whilst hovering in the background was the figure of Edward du Cann himself. As it happened du Cann dithered for some time as to whether he would put his name forward, and it was not until the 15th January that he finally confirmed that he would not be standing. (In du Cann's case the problem was that some of gossip being spread about regarding his financial dealings actually had some truth behind them as later became clear to everyone.) However if anyone had been forced to pick a favourite at the time it would have been William Whitelaw, although it was obvious that Whitelaw was far too loyal to challenge Heath and wouldn't stand unless Heath himself resigned.
4. Enter Margaret Thatcher
The one name that did not feature that prominently was that of Margaret Thatcher. As the token woman in Heath's government she had taken on the role of Secretary of State for Education, and therefore had no experience of major office. It was known that she was close to Keith Joseph and critical of some aspects of Heath's government, and therefore might well therefore stand against Heath but no one regarded her as a serious threat.
However, following the election defeat she had been appointed Shadow Financial Secretary and therefore the effective deputy to the Shadow Chancellor Robert Carr. This appointment (or so it is said) was made by Edward Heath in the belief that Thatcher would thereby reveal her inadequacies when faced with a 'hard' economic brief, and thus scupper any distant threat she might have posed to Heath's position. This turned out to be a miscalculation as Thatcher's performance as Shadow Financial Secretary proved that she was quite capable of handling such financial matters, whilst she put on rather a good show at the Budget debate in late 1974, denouncing every other Labour proposal with the cry "We will repeal this clause!" which, if nothing else, cheered up Conservative MPs. The end result was therefore the opposite of what was intended as it made Margaret Thatcher a far more credible candidate for the leadership.
Despite this Thatcher was unsure about standing and it was only when Keith Joseph informed her that the public reaction to his Edgabaston speech had convinced him (or at least convinced his wife) not to stand that Thatcher decided that she should put her name forward on the basis that "someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand". As a matter of courtesy Thatcher went to see Heath to inform him of her decision to stand against him. According to Thatcher's own account of the meeting Heath's only response was the laconic "if you must", although according to other sources Heath added the words "You'll lose". This indeed was a fairly common reaction to the news that Thatcher was to stand for the party leadership, even husband Dennis Thatcher responded to his wife's news with the words "You must be out of your mind, you haven't got a hope". No one regarded her as a particularly serious contender for the position and, at best, she was viewed as the stalking horse who might attract sufficient protest votes to persuade Heath to resign and act as trigger for the real candidates to enter the second ballot.
5. The First Round
The one advantage that the Thatcher campaign had was the undeniable fact that Edward Heath was not, in the modern vernacular a 'people person'. In fact his utter lack of interpersonal skills had produced a long list of Conservative MPs who had, over the years, been variously overlooked, insulted or slighted by the party leader and were more than ready to help Thatcher out. It was in this way that such names as Airey Neave and Angus Meade eagerly volunteered to help Margaret Thatcher in her campaign. Although Hugh Fraser had also entered the contest, he was regarded as an out and out reactionary and very much a rank outsider, and from the point of view of the Heath campaign, Thatcher was the only real threat. Despite the confidence of the Heath team that their man was a certain winner, there was always the danger that one too many votes might be cast for Thatcher and so damage the image of party unity, and so they began looking for ways in which they could damage Thatcher's standing.
Sometime earlier Thatcher had given an interview to a magazine titled Pre-Retirement Choice during which she had expressed the opinion that it made good sense for housewives to stock up on supplies before price increases took effect. (These were the days of double digit inflation.) It is difficult to imagine why such commonplace advice would have attracted any comment whatsoever but to a generation raised during World War II this sounded very like the unpardonable sin of hoarding. Fleet Street journalists were briefed and what began life as a trivial remark was escalated into a minor scandal. The former Chief Whip Michael Redman was wheeled out on television to offer the opinion that any inducement to "panic buying" was against the "public interest", and at one time it appeared that a delegation of Birmingham housewives were ready to travel down to London to liberate the contents of the overstocked cupboards in the Thatcher household. There was nothing for it but to invite a host of Fleet Street journalists to the Thatcher home to view the contents of their food cupboards, which turned out to be rather bare and somewhat ordinary.
This was however not the end of it, as another story soon circulated alleging that Margaret Thatcher had been spotted on the Finchley Road buying large quantities of sugar, but that story rapidly died a death when it transpired that the shop in question didn't even exist. As farcical as all this might sound today these were the kind of 'dirty tricks' which Heath and his supporters believed would undermine support for the challenger.
Although it's unlikely that any of this made much real difference, it certainly helped strengthen the widespread perception that Heath would be returned as leader. He had the support of almost every member of the Shadow Cabinet and the entire party establishment, together with every leading Conservative newspaper and journal. (Only the weekly magazineThe Spectator felt obliged to break ranks and call for his dismissal.) The media therefore predicted a Heath victory, and did so with some confidence since 'sources' within both the Heath and Thatcher campaign teams had told them that Heath was well in the lead. Although it's worth noting that the Thatcher team actually believed that the vote would be much closer and was simply practising a little disinformation; believing that by downplaying their candidate's chances they would persuade those waverers to support their candidate just to get rid of Heath.
However outside the Thatcher election headquarters everyone was so convinced that a victory for Heath was a foregone conclusion, that on the evening that the results were due to be announced, the entire staff at Conservative Party Central Office had gone home for the evening with the sole exception of one junior official left manning the phones. It was therefore with utter astonishment that the party establishment viewed the result of the First Ballot held on the 4th February 1975 when it was discovered that Thatcher had polled 130 votes in her favour against 119 for Heath, with a mere 19 votes going to the also-ran Hugh Fraser.
6. The Second Round
When the results of the first ballot became known Edward Heath immediately announced his resignation. As the rules stood at the time, the way was now clear for new names to be put forward for the second ballot. William Whitelaw soon announced that he would stand, and he was soon joined by Geoffrey Howe, James Prior and John Peyton, whilst Hugh Fraser decided to withdraw and urged his supporters to vote for William Whitelaw. With all these respected politicians now joining in the race, the general expectation at the time was that Thatcher had now fulfilled her role as stalking horse and having forced Heath's resignation would now be eliminated from the contest. Although it was expected that Thatcher would probably retain first place in the second ballot, it was believed she would be well short of the required majority of 139, and that the party would then unite around the avuncular figure of Whitelaw, after which things would carry on much as they had before.
The actual result of the second ballot of the 11th February was
probably more of a shock than the previous week's poll, as Thatcher won
a total of 146 votes, against only 79 for Whitelaw, with James Prior
and Geoffrey Howe on 19 each, and John Peyton proping up the poll with
11 votes. As the Guardian noted at the time "there was frank
astonishment at Westminster when the result of the ballot of Tory MPs
was announced" as no one had actually expected Thatcher to win. But win she did becoming the first, and to date only, woman to lead a major British political party.
The reason why Thatcher's victory was such a surprise to many was because the Conservative Party establishment still believed in the sort of consensus politics advocated by Edward Heath. So widespread was the adoption of these ideas that everyone including the Party hierarchy and the media believed that this is what ordinary Conservatives wanted.
However what almost everyone had failed to notice was the extent to which individual Conservative MPs had come to believe that the time had come for the party to return to its roots as the "historic defender of private enterprise and the free market economy". At one time it had appeared that Heath himself favoured such a line when Selsdon Man was born before his election victory of 1970, although he'd rapidly abandoned such ideas in his infamous U-turn when in power. Many Conservatives drew a lesson from these events and would have concurred with the view that "What people overlook about Selsdon Man is that he won the 1970 election. If it hadn't been for the subsequent brain transplant, he might have won it this time too."
As a result the election of Margaret Thatcher to the position of Leader of the Conservative Party is often characterised as being a backbench revolt, when the party's rank file overthrew the established order. It certainly marked what is now regarded as a watershed in the Party's history, as Edward du Cann told BBC Television at the time, "We have a new and rather exciting leader. Mrs Thatcher will make the Tory Party distinctive."
- Margaret Thatcher, The Path to Power (HarperCollins, 1995)
- Alan Clark, The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State, 1922-97 (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1998)
- John Ramdsen, An Appetite for Power: A history of the Conservative Party since 1830 (HarperCollins, 1998)
- 1975: Tories choose first woman leader http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/11/newsid_25 39000/2539451.stm
- Ian Aitken, An icy calm over the blasted Heath, The Guardian October 14, 1974 http://politics.guardian.co.uk/electionspast/story/0,,1450344,00.html