Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 1990

Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 1990

The 1990 Conservative Party leadership election in the United Kingdom took place in November 1990 following the decision of former Defence and Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine to stand against the incumbent Conservative leader and Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher failed to win outright under the terms of the election 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.


Background to the contest

Discontent with Thatcher's leadership of the party had been growing over the latter years of her tenure. In December 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. Whereas in 1987 Thatcher had presided over an economic boom, by 1989-90 interest rates had to be hiked to 15% to cool inflation which was now in double digits - and by late 1990 the economy was in recession. The introduction of the deeply unpopular Community Charge (labelled 'Poll Tax') had been greeted with widespread non-payment and even a riot in Trafalgar Square in April 1990. Labour held a lead in most of the opinion polls since mid 1989 and at the height of the Poll tax controversy, one opinion poll had shown Labour support in excess of 50% with a lead of more than 20 points over the Tories.

There were differences within the Cabinet over Thatcher's perceived intransigence in her approach to the European Economic Community — in particular many leading Conservatives wanted Britain to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a move which Thatcher did not favour. In 1989 the then Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe and Chancellor Nigel Lawson forced Thatcher to agree to the "Madrid Conditions", namely that Britain would eventually join the ERM "when the time was right". In July 1989 she retaliated by removing Howe from the Foreign Office, moving him to Deputy Prime Minister. Lawson - who had clashed with Thatcher over "shadowing the Deutschmark" early in 1988 - then resigned as Chancellor in October 1989, unable to accept Thatcher taking independent advice from the economist Alan Walters. The beneficiary of these moves was the hitherto-unknown Chief Secretary to the Treasury, John Major, who briefly succeeded Howe as Foreign Secretary before succeeding Lawson as Chancellor, putting him in pole position to succeed Thatcher. In October 1990 Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd finally obtained agreement from a reluctant Thatcher that Britain should join the ERM.

In her Party Conference Speech early in October, Thatcher mocked the Liberal Democrats' new "bird" logo in language lifted from the famous "Monty Python" "Dead Parrot" sketch. This looked more than slightly foolish when the Liberal Democrats captured a seat off the Conservatives at the Eastbourne by-election (caused by the assassination of Ian Gow by the IRA at the end of July) on 18 October.

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, including a Single Currency, 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" (In June 1990 Chancellor Major had suggested that the proposed Single European Currency should be a "hard ecu", competing for use against existing national currencies; this idea was not in the end adopted).

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[1] from the backbenches, addressing his dismay at her approach and, famously responding to Thatcher's cricketing metaphor by employing one of his own. Explaining how, in his opinion, her approach made it hard for British ministers to negotiate for Britain's interests in Europe he declared:

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.

Contest rules

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

The first ballot in the election took place on Tuesday 20 November 1990. Thatcher herself was at the Fontainebleau European summit on the night of the contest and therefore voted by proxy, perhaps anticipating a better result than she actually achieved.

First ballot: 20 November 1990
Candidate Votes[2] %
Margaret Thatcher 204 54.8
Michael Heseltine 152 40.9
Abstentions 16 4.3
Majority 52 14.0
Electorate 372
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 statement in Paris following the announcement of the result, declaring that she intended to contest the second ballot, and on her return to London declared "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: 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.[3]

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

The second round of voting took place on Tuesday 27 November 1990.

Second ballot: 27 November 1990
Candidate Votes %
John Major 185 49.7
Michael Heseltine 131 35.2
Douglas Hurd 56 15.1
Majority 54 14.5
Turnout 372
Third ballot required

Major, seen as relatively new blood in the government, secured a commanding lead - although with fewer votes than Thatcher had obtained in the first ballot - 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.


The Sun newspaper, a firm supporter of Thatcher and her party since her election campaign in 1979, marked her resignation with the front page headline "MRS T-EARS" - in reference to her breaking down in tears after announcing her resignation.[4]

Labour opposition leader Neil Kinnock (whose party had been ascendant in the opinion polls since the announcement of the Poll tax more than a year earlier) described Mrs Thatcher's resignation as "very good news" and demanded an immediate general election.[5]


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, negotiating 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 seats.

Nevertheless the political tides soon turned. The government's reputation for economic competence was destroyed by Britain's ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992, leading to inevitable protests e.g. from Norman Tebbit at the 1992 Party Conference, that the Conservatives had been wrong to ignore Thatcher's wishes to stay out (whether Britain entered the ERM at too high an exchange rate has been a source of debate ever since). Apart from a brief period during the fuel protests in 2000 the Conservatives would not again enjoy an opinion poll lead until after the election of David Cameron as leader in 2005. The ongoing rebellion in the first half of 1993 by Conservative backbenchers against the passage of the Maastricht Treaty through the House of Commons was also deeply damaging to the government. Many of the Maastricht rebels were Thatcher supporters, and one of them, Teresa Gorman, devoted the opening chapter of her memoir of the incident to an account of the 1990 leadership contest. The massive Conservative defeat in 1997 was thus attributable, at least in part, to the perception of internal division over Europe which had first been exposed by the 1990 leadership election.


Some voting data taken from

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