Major Succeeds Thatcher as British Prime Minister

When it became clear that the Conservative Party could lose the next general election in the United Kingdom under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, John Major slipped by several other opponents to become the new prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party.

Summary of Event

In 1979, the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, regained power from the Labour Party in the British parliamentary elections. As leader of the majority party, Thatcher was asked by the queen to form a government and thus became Britain’s first woman prime minister. The Conservative Party retained its majority in the next two elections, held in 1983 and 1987, with Thatcher firmly in control. Prime ministers;United Kingdom
Elections;United Kingdom
[kw]Major Succeeds Thatcher as British Prime Minister (Nov. 28, 1990)
[kw]Thatcher as British Prime Minister, Major Succeeds (Nov. 28, 1990)
[kw]British Prime Minister, Major Succeeds Thatcher as (Nov. 28, 1990)
[kw]Prime Minister, Major Succeeds Thatcher as British (Nov. 28, 1990)
Prime ministers;United Kingdom
Elections;United Kingdom
[g]Europe;Nov. 28, 1990: Major Succeeds Thatcher as British Prime Minister[07940]
[g]United Kingdom;Nov. 28, 1990: Major Succeeds Thatcher as British Prime Minister[07940]
[g]England;Nov. 28, 1990: Major Succeeds Thatcher as British Prime Minister[07940]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 28, 1990: Major Succeeds Thatcher as British Prime Minister[07940]
Major, John
Thatcher, Margaret
[p]Thatcher, Margaret;prime ministership
Heseltine, Michael
Hurd, Douglas

By 1990, however, opinion polls were beginning to predict a loss for the Conservative Party at the next elections, which were due to be held in two years. Some party members thought that at least part of the public’s discontent with the party was related to unhappiness with Thatcher. She had supported a number of rather divisive social policies, some of which were causing continued high unemployment levels; she had pushed through a highly unpopular poll tax to replace the old system of local taxes or rates; Poll taxes and she had demonstrated an increasingly dictatorial style in governing, leading to the resignations of a number of prominent cabinet members, including Michael Heseltine of the Board of Trade in 1986 and Sir Geoffrey Howe, Howe, Geoffrey the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1990.

In an attempt to make the party more democratic, the Conservatives, also known as Tories, had instituted annual leadership elections. For much of Thatcher’s tenure, she had been returned as leader unopposed, but first in 1989 and then in 1990, she was opposed. The latter opposition was significant, because it was made by a senior Conservative Party figure, Michael Heseltine, a populist center-right politician who opposed Thatcher’s right-wing, patrician leadership. Under party rules, the election could run to three rounds of voting. In the first round, the winner had to have a majority of the votes cast and a clear 15 percent over the next candidate. With 372 members of Parliament eligible to vote, this meant a winner would need up to 214 votes. Otherwise, there would be a second round, and new candidates could enter the race. The winner would need half the eligible votes, in this case, 187. If there was a failure to obtain this number, the best three candidates would go into a third round, which would be decided by a simple majority after a transferable vote from the candidate in third position.

The date for the first round of voting was set for Tuesday, November 20, 1990. Thatcher at once declared her candidacy, saying she still had unfinished business. No other party members put up their names to oppose her apart from Heseltine. Although she won by 204 votes to 152, this was not enough to declare her the outright winner, and there would need to be a second round of voting. At this stage, electioneering became tense, as at first it seemed that Thatcher was willing to head into the second round, even though it was evident she had lost significant party support. Two likely candidates indicated that they would stand for the position of party leader, but only if Thatcher would stand down: John Major, who had replaced Howe as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Douglas Hurd, the experienced foreign secretary.

At this point, various high-ranking members of the party made it clear to Thatcher that, although she would win the second round, the result would be a divided party almost certain to lose the next election. Within a day, she decided to stand down, giving her preference to John Major, even though he was the youngest and least experienced of all the likely candidates. When nominations closed on Thursday, November 22, there were three candidates: Michael Heseltine, John Major, and Douglas Hurd. Support was growing for Major as the candidate behind whom the party could most easily unite, although at the beginning he had been very much an also-ran. When the second round of voting took place on November 27, Major received 187 votes, Heseltine received 131, and Hurd received 56. Although Major was technically two votes short of what was needed for victory, the two other candidates immediately dropped out of the race, leaving him the undisputed party leader.

Thatcher went to the queen to announce her resignation, whereupon the queen invited John Major to form a new government. He thus became prime minister with immediate effect, even though he had only three years’ cabinet experience. Major then brought Heseltine back into the cabinet and retained Hurd, thus unifying the party. He announced that the unpopular poll tax would be reviewed, and that moves toward the United Kingdom’s greater integration with the European Union would proceed cautiously.


After Major became prime minister, opinion polls immediately put the Conservative Party back on equal footing with the Labour Party. Major decided not to hold a quick election, however, but to run the full five-year term of Parliament, hoping that the nation’s economy would improve and unemployment would come down. Although this did not happen, the Labour Party manifesto at the general election was shown to be the same “spend and tax” program that the electorate had come to associate with past Labour governments. Major managed to persuade the voters that he was a safer pair of hands to manage the economy and guide the nation toward integration with the European Union. In the end, the Conservatives retained power with a small but workable overall majority.

Major’s sudden rise to leadership put him at something of a disadvantage, as, in addition to being inexperienced, he had little time to formulate his personal goals and policies. His style was to seek consensus within the cabinet and to hear out his opponents, a style very different from Thatcher’s. Major’s relative sympathy to the cause of European unity was increasingly opposed by Thatcher, soon to become Lady Thatcher, and many other right-wing Tories. His cause was not helped by the United Kingdom’s having to withdraw from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Union, an anti-inflationary device that was too much at the mercy of the German economy, now struggling with reunification of the old communist East Germany with West Germany. This “Black Wednesday” of 1992 delayed British economic recovery for several years.

Major’s consensus style of leadership became increasingly problematic as opposition to his European stance began to be voiced even within the cabinet. In the end, Major had to resign as leader of the party in 1995, forcing a leadership contest that he then won comfortably. Division within the party continued, however, to which was added a “sleaze” factor when the press exposed various misdemeanors by Conservative members of Parliament and a number of notorious resignations ensued, even though other accusations were found to be false. In the 1997 elections, the British voters viewed the Conservatives as fatally flawed and the country in need of a change, even though the economy had picked up and unemployment was dropping. The allure of the young Tony Blair’s Blair, Tony “New Labour” was potent, and John Major’s government was defeated in a landslide.

The Major government did, however, produce some solid gains that the new Labour Party was all too eager to retain. The economy had picked up, spending on education and the health service had increased substantially, income taxes had been reduced, and the unpopular poll tax had been replaced by a new council tax. The British currency was doing well despite the United Kingdom’s not entering into the single currency of the European Union. Peace initiatives had begun in Northern Ireland, although further terrorist attacks had put these on hold, and in foreign affairs, the British had done well in Iraq by backing President George H. W. Bush in Operation Desert Storm. Prime ministers;United Kingdom
Elections;United Kingdom

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Bruce. John Major: The Making of the Prime Minister. London: Fourth Estate, 1991. Study of Major’s early life and development discusses the formation of his beliefs and attitudes.
  • Major, John. John Major: The Autobiography. London: HarperCollins, 1999. Written soon after he left office, Major’s personal account deals almost entirely with his years as prime minister.
  • Seldon, Anthony. Major: A Political Life. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997. Biography written before Major’s decisive defeat gives a full and detailed account of his political career.
  • Taylor, Robert. John Major. London: Haus, 2006. Provides an accessible introduction to Major and his government for the general reader.

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