One of the smaller aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s unlikely rise to power is relatively unknown to Americans. That’s the story of how she became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. And the truth of the matter is that it was an inspired strategy on her part and a huge miscalculation by her opponents. She was, truth be told, never supposed to have become party leader. It was her very unelectability that elected her. It was the mother of all bluffs.
She was, after all, a woman – and in the mid-1970s, the idea of a female prime minister was not exactly congenial to the Tory party. She’d had a rough time as Education Secretary in the previous government. She was a minor figure in the grand scheme of things. So when she decided to challenge former prime minister Edward Heath for leadership of the parliamentary party, she was clearly understood to be acting as what’s called a “stalking horse.” She obviously couldn’t beat Heath, but she could reveal serious erosion in his support among his fellow Tory MPs, wound him in a first ballot, allow him to pledge to resign, and then have a new contest among his rightful, more established and palatable inheritors. Her strategy, conjured by her friend Airey Neave (later murdered by the IRA on the eve of her first election), was to tell MPs to vote for her just to get rid of Heath. Then they could have a real contest.
Neave told everyone as the vote approached that she didn’t have a chance – in fact, her weakness could mean a triumph by Heath which would end any way of getting rid of him as leader before the next election. And Neave was so successful in downplaying her chances and the party was so desperate to fire Heath, and the likely successors were so scared of getting too far out in front, that she won the first round overwhelmingly. So overwhelmingly in fact that the momentum continued and she went on to defeat the establishment candidate, Willie Whitelaw, in the second round.
Old school Tory MPs thought they were using this odd female politician to get rid of a flailing and failed leader. They didn’t realize until it was too late that she had been using them. And it’s worth recalling that her time as opposition leader was not that successful. As she moved toward the right, the centrist wing of her party got more and more nervous. Chauvinists were perturbed. If Callaghan had called an election in the fall of 1978, the polls suggest he would have won. But he dithered. And she pounced.
This was a woman who took risks. And her first move for the party leadership was one of the more stunning and unexpected rewards.