Why you should care
Because sometimes good manners make all the difference.
He politely chuckled at the notion of a female prime minister in 1974, before telling British women that they should not be “discouraged.” But Conservative Party leader Edward Heath never imagined that — in just the space of a few months — he would be replaced by a member of the opposite sex.
Becoming the leader of any political party is perilous; it can hurt predecessors’ feelings and even rip families apart. But what these ascensions have proven time and again is that even the most carefully orchestrated incumbent campaigns can be undone by unforeseen events and ambitious contenders.
For 49-year-old Margaret Thatcher, rising to the top of the British Conservative Party four decades ago depended upon impeccable timing, solid connections and good fortune. Conservatives were desperate for fresh leadership, and the sharks were circling. Her opponent, Heath, had the unenviable record of losing three out of four general elections during his 10-year stint at the party’s helm. But making history as the party’s first female leader didn’t seem possible, and even Thatcher noted that it would be “extremely difficult for a woman to make it to the top.” Yet she sent Heath packing on Feb. 11, 1975, making history for both British Tories and women alike.
Thatcher inherited a pivotal ally: the well-connected MP Airey Neave.
Conservative MP Conor Burns, a close friend of Thatcher in her final years, doesn’t even think victory was what she had in mind when she first entered the fray. “She did not think she was going to get the leadership,” he says, noting that she really just wanted to voice her ideas and “give Heath a kick up the arse.” Tim Bell, the public relations guru who helped secure future Thatcher electoral successes, agrees. “I don’t think the likely outcome was that she was going to win,” he says.
Yet by the time she had confirmed her candidacy, the fates of other would-be contenders had already played to Thatcher’s advantage. Her political mentor at the time, Keith Joseph, had been expected to take up the baton for the party’s right-of-center wing. But an ill-fated speech suggesting that the poor should have fewer children proved his undoing. That’s when Thatcher first began mulling a run for the leadership. Edward du Cann, chairman of the party’s powerful 1922 Committee, was also a likely leader. But criticism of his financial policies — he was chairman of the crisis-hit merchant bank Keyser Ullman — worked against him, forcing him to stay out of the race.
With those two out, Thatcher inherited a pivotal ally: the well-connected MP Airey Neave. Neave had hoped to run du Cann’s campaign but quickly adjusted, pledging his loyalty to the unlikely shopkeeper’s daughter. Turns out, he had skin in the game that worked to her favor. Neave had suffered a heart attack in 1959 and bore a grudge against Heath, who reportedly told him at the time, “You’re finished, then.” That “great clumsy handling” by Heath, says Burns, underpinned Neave’s devotion to Thatcher. “Heath did himself no favors,” Bell adds, noting how he “behaved in a misogynistic manner” and failed to show his competition respect.
Neave pulled out all the stops to ensure that Conservative MPs — who at that time controlled the fate of the party leadership — voted 130 to 119 in Thatcher’s favor. Heath was finished after the first ballot. The second ballot, taking place a week later, saw four more candidates emerge, but the contest was rightly viewed as a simple battle between Thatcher and senior colleague William Whitelaw. Whitelaw proved a “bumbling compromise merchant,” Bell remembers, enabling Thatcher to storm into the history books, winning 146 to 79.
Thatcher then cut her teeth as leader of the opposition for the next four years. Initially criticized for her shrill vocal delivery and visible nerves, the future Iron Lady was still a work in progress. But she would go on to become Britain’s first — and still only — female prime minister in May 1979.
Sadly, the ace up her sleeve didn’t live long enough to see her enter 10 Downing Street. Neave was killed by the Irish National Liberation Army just weeks before her victory. After learning of his death, a visibly distraught Thatcher said: “I … owe so much to him.”