Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as British prime minister provoked tears in Washington and consternation in Moscow, according to a secret Downing Street file released on Friday.
Henry Kissinger rang Downing Street “in a very emotional state” saying her decision to resign was “worse than a death in the family”, while Thatcher’s closest adviser, Charles Powell, told the US national security adviser, General Brent Scowcroft, that her departure was “a sad commentary on standards of loyalty in politics”.
The Downing Street file entitled The Resignation of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, includes tributes from world leaders to Thatcher, a two-page briefing note from the cabinet secretary explaining why an immediate general election was not necessary, and a “resignation action plan” setting out a timetable for the fateful day of 22 November 1990.
It also contains a curious 1991 rebuttal by John Wakeham, then a cabinet minister, of allegations in a forthcoming book by the journalist Alan Watkins that he had deliberately precipitated Thatcher’s downfall by initiating the “parade of cabinet ministers” who one by one told her she would not win a second round leadership ballot against Michael Heseltine.
Thatcher quit to leave the field clear for John Major and Douglas Hurd to fight off Heseltine, a move recorded by the Guardian that day under the headline: “Battle to halt the usurper.”
The cabinet files for 1989 and 1990 released at the National Archives at Kew on Friday also include the minutes of Thatcher’s last cabinet meeting, during which she said her “consultations among colleagues … had indicated that all were supportive but most thought that it was now unlikely she would win the ballot”. Officially the minutes record that the “cabinet took note, with profound sadness, of the statement by the prime minister”.
The files also contain papers from the October 1989 resignation of her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, which show Thatcher’s principal private secretary, Andrew Turnball, told her that she could turn his resignation her to advantage by exposing his policy of trying to get sterling into the European Monetary System by the back door by shadowing the Deutschmark despite her opposition.
Thatcher’s departure was partially precipitated by popular resentment over the poll tax, which she championed. It was seen as an attempt to shift the burden of taxation from the rich to the poor and as an example of an increasingly authoritarian style of leadership.
Geoffrey Howe resigned as deputy prime minister at the beginning of November in protest over her European policies and in an agonising Commons speech suggested the time had come for party colleagues to “consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long”. Michael Heseltine then challenged her for the Conservative party leadership, triggering a contest from which she subsequently withdrew.
The Downing Street papers show that while Thatcher’s resignation was regarded as a slow-motion car crash by those at Westminster, it was greeted with incomprehension in the wider world.
In Kissinger’s emotional phone call to No 10 he told Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, Powell, that she had been one of the great figures of modern times and “nobody outside Britain – indeed nobody outside Westminster – could understand how your fellow Conservatives could have done this”.
The feeling was even more acute in Moscow. The Soviet ambassador handed over a personal message to “Margaret” from Mikhail Gorbachev saying there had been “consternation” at the turn of events: “Gorbachev had sent Shevardnadze [his foreign minister] out of a high level meeting in the Kremlin to telephone him, to find out what on earth was going on and how such a thing could be conceivable,” recorded Powell.
“The ambassador said that he had indeed found it very hard to explain. Indeed, there was a certain irony. Five years ago they had party coups in the Soviet Union and elections in Britain. Now it seemed to be the other way round.”
A Foreign Office review of Italian press reaction says several papers compared her to Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria and “the general view is that she was a great leader brought down by her own intransigence”. One Italian weekly, Panorama, took the view that although the domestic economy, the poll tax and Europe were major factors in her increasing unpopularity “most British politicians found it intolerable that a woman should continue to lead them”.
The tributes are also notable for the personal messages from the heads of the security services. Patrick Walker of MI5 thanks her for her support, particularly as “the first part of the 1980s with the Bettaney case and its aftermath and the Peter Wright saga were not easy”.
The Downing Street file reveals that while global leaders were loudly singing her praises her own cabinet colleagues were notably less effusive. A collection among members of her last cabinet was organised by Ken Baker. It was enough to buy a pair of silver candlesticks. But her successor, John Major, agreed that the presentation should take place quietly in the lord chancellor’s lodgings at Westminster as “this would be both less painful for her and also attract less publicity than an event for this purpose in No 10”.