On This Day

margaret thatcher, margaret thatcher resigns, margaret denis thatcher
Martin Cleaver/AP
Margaret Thatcher speaks to reporters as
she leaves No. 10 Downing Street, Nov.
28, 1990.

On This Day: Margaret Thatcher Steps Down as Britain’s Prime Minister

November 28, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 28, 1990, after more than 11 years as the nation’s first female premier, Margaret Thatcher resigned. Although credited with reducing inflation and victory in the Falklands War, she was and remains a profoundly divisive figure in British politics.

Iron Lady Passes Torch to John Major

Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing Street, the traditional home of the British prime minister, to be driven to Buckingham Palace, where she tendered her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state.

As head of the Conservative Party, Mrs. Thatcher had informed the House of Commons of her decision six days earlier, but she could not complete her formal departure until after a successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major, could be elected.

“We’re leaving Downing Street for the last time after eleven-and-a-half years and we’re happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came in,” Thatcher told reporters in her last speech as prime minister.

The man who led the assault on Mrs. Thatcher’s leadership, and proved her undoing, was her Deputy Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Howe, who resigned on Nov. 1, 1990. Sir Geoffrey advocated taking a stronger role within the European Economic Community and accepting a single currency, positions that Mrs. Thatcher did not support.

On Nov. 13, Howe, who had been a loyal supporter of Mrs. Thatcher, condemned her policies in a speech before Parliament. The speech all but assured that Thatcher’s position as head of the Conservative Party would be challenged by former Cabinet member Michael Heseltine, who strongly supported continued integration with Europe.

Thatcher narrowly defeated Heseltine in a Nov. 20 ballot of Conservative MPs, but the close margin necessitated a second ballot with other candidates included. Though Thatcher vowed to continue fighting, party members advised her to resign for the unity of the party.
On the morning of Nov. 22, Mrs. Thatcher released a statement reading, “The Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher, F.R.S., has informed the Queen that she does not intend to contest the second ballot of the election for leadership of the Conservative Party and intends to resign as Prime Minister as soon as a new leader of the Conservative Party has been elected.”

That night, she gave a farewell speech before Parliament. “Nothing became Margaret Thatcher's prime ministership as her leaving of it,” wrote Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian. “The last big performance was a command one; a dying aria that played to a packed House.”

The Tenure of Margaret Thatcher

During her tenure as prime minister, the longest since the late 19th century, Mrs. Thatcher was dubbed the Iron Lady—a title she relished—by Moscow for her outspoken opposition to the Soviet Union.

At the same time, she embraced Mikhail Gorbachev as a man with whom she could do business. She formed strong bonds with President Ronald Reagan and the President George H.W. Bush.

She gained wide popularity in Britain for her decision to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina, which invaded the islands in 1982. It proved a defining moment of her years in office, and the pivotal point in her otherwise-unexpected victory in the 1983 election.

It was not only the Falklands War, or while she was in office her conflict with the U.K. unions, that allowed the Iron Lady to show her mettle. Many commentators at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991 voiced the opinion that it was her determination that gave President Bush the push that he needed to declare war on Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Her own words in an interview with PBS’ Frontline would seem to support that conviction.

If further evidence of her influence were needed, Mrs. Thatcher’s account of a phone conversation with President George H.W. Bush is famous for its “no time to go wobbly” admonition.

But her economic policies, though credited with reducing inflation, were considered tough on unions and Britain’s welfare state, and, together with her lack of support for the Common Market, proved her undoing within her own party.

Thatcher's entire political life, which continued after she left office and adopted the title of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, or Lady Thatcher, is chronicled in detail on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation site.

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