BRITAIN: A Tough Lady for the Tories

  • Share
  • Read Later

"To me it is like a dream, that the next name in the lists after Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Edward Heath is Margaret Thatcher." With those uncharacteristically emotional words, the coolly competent M.P. for Finchley accepted her triumph as the first woman ever to head a political party in Britain. Winning seven votes more than the mandatory majority of 139, Mrs. Thatcher, who had toppled former Prime Minister Edward Heath from his ten-year reign as Conservative Party chief the week before, soundly defeated a formidable array of four male challengers. Her leading opponent, Party Chairman William Whitelaw, drew only 79 votes.

There was no time for lavish celebrations, however. "We must get down to work instantly," said the hard-driving Mrs. Thatcher. But she did pause to phone her husband, successful, self-effacing Oilman Denis Thatcher. Daughter Carol, 21, was in the middle of law exams at the time of her mother's victory, while her twin brother Mark, a London accountant, was also too busy to be reached until later in the day.

The odds makers who had originally predicted a third-ballot victory for amiable William Whitelaw apparently underestimated the intensity of anti-Heath feeling within the party—a sentiment that damned Whitelaw, who was one of the former Prime Minister's closest party associates. Said one Tory backbencher: "The constituencies were pro-Heath, but in the parliamentary party there were just too many people who couldn't stand him any longer."

Although his election defeats and faltering economic policies were significant factors, in many cases the antipathy to Heath was based on personal rather than policy differences. "He never knew how to soothe people's egos," said another Tory veteran. "He made enemies needlessly when a bit of patronage, a knighthood to flatter an ego or satisfy the social ambitions of a disgruntled wife, was all that was needed."

One irony of her victory is that in many ways, Margaret Thatcher seems to be Ted Heath's female Doppelgänger. Although her garden party hats and porcelain-voweled laments over "the twilight of the middle class" belie it, Mrs. Thatcher shares Heath's relatively humble background—the one the daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer, the other the son of a Kentish carpenter. Both have been characterized as being almost frostily reserved and unassailably self-confident. Both owe their political rise to impressive performances as Tory spokesmen on financial affairs, Thatcher in the past few months, Heath in the early '60s. The difference, however—and some fear that it may prove to be a disastrous one for the Tories in the next general election—is that her outlook is several degrees to the right of Heath's. She also has no experience in foreign affairs. When asked her opinions in matters of world diplomacy and defense at a press conference last week, Mrs. Thatcher tartly replied: "I am all for them." Such brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is nonetheless disconcerting in a prospective Prime Minister. Mrs. Thatcher is the first to admit that she is "not an expert in all fields," and she intends to appoint a Cabinet that will provide balance to her own expertise in domestic affairs.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3