Margaret Thatcher becomes leader of the Tory Party
When Ted Heath lost the second election of 1974 in October, having already been ousted from government by Harold Wilson's Labour Party in February, the writing was on the wall for his leadership, though he was determined to fight on. This in spite of the failure of his 1970-74 government to tackle the unions and solve Britain's economic woes, and the British public's reaction to his distant, wooden, largely charmless and totally charisma-free personality.
The radical Tory thinker Keith Joseph had looked like the man to challenge Heath, having been openly critical of him even while serving in his government, but it was not to be; he made an ill-judged speech in October 1974 at Edgbaston that put paid to his chances. His friend and ally Margaret Thatcher, however, was unwilling to see Heath's failed policies limp along under his lacklustre leadership. Thatcher had founded the Centre for Policy Studies with Keith Joseph, a beacon for their free-market idealogy, and when he felt unable to stand she took the challenge on.
Thatcher had been an MP since 1959, but had only held office for four years, as Heath's Secretary of State for Education, not one of the most senior positions in the cabinet by a long way. Neither did she seem to have the political clout of say Willie Whitelaw, or Jim Prior. But she did have the steel to take on her leader.
In the first ballot, to the astonishment of most in the party and nearly all in the wider country, Thatcher beat Heath, by 130 votes to 119. Some of the then more significant figures in the Tory party jumped in to try to seize the moment, as if Thatcher had been a mere stalking-horse candidate. But they were too late: Thatcher had momentum; she offered something patently different - the first of her sex to lead a major Western European political party were she to win; policies that were different from what had come to seem an unhealthy blending of middle of the road Labour and Tory compromises when the country was going to hell in a hand basket; and the camera was far more attracted to her than her male rivals.
Thus in the second ballot on February 11 1975 Willie Whitelaw polled 79 votes, Geoffrey Howe and Jim Prior 19 each, and outsider John Peyton just 11. The 50-year-old MP for Finchley gathered 146, adding to her first round total when some commentators predicted her support would diminish.
The rest is history: Thatcher went on to win the 1979 election and was PM for 11 years. Edward Heath began what was to be dubbed 'the longest sulk in political history', refusing to serve under her, criticising every move she made, convinced that one day the party would realise its mistake and invite him back as leader. There is an adjective Thatcherism still often used today; if there is a word Heathism this writer has never seen it. Love or loathe the Iron Lady, she made her mark.
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