The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

The Economist 1979

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979. Her eventual downfall came in 1990. But even within her first year, as the economy tanked, The Economist newspaper was predicting her imminent demise in its end of year edition.

The next election was due in 1984 but The Economist, which was broadly sympathetic to Thatcher, couldn’t see her lasting that long. They predicted her downfall a year or two before then given the way support was ebbing away.

Thatcher Downfall: Labour expected to return to power

Thatcher was pleading for more than one term in office to achieve her aims but at the end of 1979, the polls were suggesting Labour would come back to power. This would result in a government led by the same people who had fronted the Labour administration in the mid to late 1970s: Peter Shore, Dennis Healey, John Silkin.

And this was seen as the natural order of things. Tories in power for five years then Labour then Tories then Labour, etc. Few thought in 1980 that the decade ahead would be solidly Tory – rather like the 1950s. Indeed, The Economist thought it was “conceivable” Thatcher would be dumped as leader before 1984.

Europe was a big problem for Thatcher – senior Tories were horrified by her roughing up of the EEC (as the EU was called then). Foreign minister Lord Carrington was seen as a restraining influence on the Prime Minister (he would resign when the Falklands War broke out).

The Economist wrote that Carrington and Home Secretary William Whitelaw might move to “bell the cat” – put Thatcher under firm control and force her into a U-turn towards more traditional One Nation Toryism. She would be forced to adopt a more Ted Heath approach or resign.

DISCOVER: What happened at the Moss Side riot in 1981?

The revival of the Liberal Party made a Lib-Con coalition – similar to what we have now – a real possibility. But The Economist thought that Labour – under Dennis Healey, who by 1984 would have defeated the left wing of the party – was more likely to return to power. The magazine correctly predicted that Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams would form a new political party and for a while, that party would exercise a big influence.

Thatcher Downfall predicted ten years too early

So, how wrong was The Economist? The election was called early in 1983; an unexpected war in the Falklands boosted Thatcher; the Labour left put up a stronger fight and Dennis Healey did not become Labour leader; Thatcher purged her enemies within the Tory party and no bell was put on that cat!

Predictions of the Thatcher downfall were about a decade too early.

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