Study Notes

Margaret Thatcher: Thatcher Loses Control

Level:
A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 29 Oct 2018

For most of her premiership, Margaret Thatcher had firm control of both her cabinet and of parliament. In the end, however, it was a combination of disagreements over Europe and a decline in popular support for the government, and Margaret Thatcher in particular, which eventually caused her cabinet to turn against her.

The first and only time she lost a vote on a full piece of legislation was in 1986, when the government had a majority of 140, on the Shop Bill, on the subject of Sunday trading. This was a time when the two aspects of New Right ideology – neoliberalism and neoconservatism - came into conflict. Mrs Thatcher’s classical liberal belief in deregulation drove the idea that businesses should be able to operate on a Sunday without restriction, but a conservative Christian view that wanted to protect Sunday as a day of rest influenced 72 Conservative backbenchers to vote against the government.

While this was an embarrassment for Thatcher, her ideas of deregulation came to become widely accepted over the years.

In the end, however, it was a combination of disagreements over Europe and a decline in popular support for the government, and Margaret Thatcher in particular, which eventually caused her cabinet to turn against her.

While Margaret Thatcher is often associated with the idea of the prime minister being utterly dominant in her cabinet, it was her cabinet that eventually removed her as prime minister.

The circumstances that led to her resignation began with Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech. He was the fourth minister to resign in a row over Europe, but his resignation speech was seen as devastating, especially his suggestion that others should consult their consciences about whether they could remain in the cabinet too.

A few days later Michael Heseltine launched a leadership bid. Thatcher had easily seen off a leadership challenge in 1989, and again she won the leadership contest in the first round, however, the leadership contest rules meant that she required a 15% margin above Heseltine to prevent a second round of voting.

The Labour Party put down a motion of no confidence in the government and demanded an immediate general election (something that was never going to happen). However, while her initial response was to say she would fight on to win, several of her cabinet ministers spoke to her, one after another, to encourage her to stand down, even those who said that they would personally vote for her but feared she would lose. Mrs Thatcher then withdrew from the contest, leading to Douglas Hurd and John Major joining the race and eventually Major becoming prime minister.

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