The Fall of the House of Thatcher

Jack Faulkner
Dec 12, 2019 · 10 min read

Like Boris Johnson, Margaret Thatcher once fought it out over Britain’s place in Europe. It ended badly.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party Conference, October 1989 (Getty Images)

Even after ten years at the top, Margaret Thatcher was still Britain’s apex predator. The jackals around her, wait for her to slip up, were mere scavengers.

If her support had diminished, that only made her a wounded, but still deadly, animal, ready to lash out with vicious ferocity and desperation. She may not have commanded quite the same level of absolute control over Britain that once had, but defying her increasingly iron will still a terrifying though for almost everyone in her party.

The idea that anyone within the Conservative Party had near enough backbone to challenge her for the leadership was ridiculous before November 1989.

Out of nowhere, a little known 69-year-old backbencher who had, in 29 years as the member for the Clwyd North West on the coast of Wales, had led an entirely unremarkable parliamentary career, challenged the Iron Lady for the leadership of the Conservative Party. And, by default, the Prime Ministership of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Two things made Sir Anthony Meyer the perfect stalking horse for those in the party who wanted to send a message to Thatcher that her increasingly dictatorial approach would be met with the only thing she responded to. A fight.

The first was that Meyer had no prospect of advancement beyond the backbench under a government that had passed its prime. At a ripe pensionable age, he might be looked after following the inevitable defeat and even more inevitable bloodletting. Either way, he had little to lose.

The second was that Meyers had a genuine grievance with Thatcher’s leadership over her belligerent approach to European engagement.

Born into privilege, educated at Eton, and staunchly economically conservative. A knight and a Baronet like his father before him, Meyer has left his place at New College, Oxford, to join the famed Scots Guard in 1941.

On 18 July 1944, First Lieutenant Meyer’s armoured communications tank was struck by a German artillery shell at Caen in Normandy.

First Lieutenant Sir Anthony Meyer (Oswald Birley, 1942)

Meyer was hit by shrapnel, including a piece that embedded in his armpit so deeply that it took a dirty fragment of his tunic with it, causing a serious infection. For the next 18 months, Meyer underwent a series of operations, firstly in Normandy, later in Manchester. Constantly by his side was his wife Barbadee, whom he had married just before enlisting. Barbadee had done her own part for the war effort, serving as a volunteer nurse. Together, they toasted the success of Meyer’s final operation with a glass of champagne. By this time he was ‘strong enough to complain that the wine was of only mediocre vintage.’

During his convalescence, he read extensively to try to prepare himself for a return to Oxford but eventually decided not to return to university.

Instead, his interest drifted towards a career as a diplomat, serving in Paris and Moscow before returning to England to specialise in matters concerning a European Common Market. His early career in Paris and his later ones working on the Common Market led his to believe Britain was better off within Europe than without. It was an eminently reasonable position at the time, having found favour within the walls of Whitehall. This, though, was in 1962. By 1970, support for an economic union, which had spent years cycling in and out of vogue, was rabidly unpopular with leading Tories.

Meyer’s wartime experiences convinced him that an integrated Europe was the best hope for avoiding further conflicts.

“Of the dozen closest friends of my youth,” he said, “ten were killed in the war — a tragic waste of life.”

Pro-Europeans like Meyer were pariahs within the Conservative Party, regardless of any other credentials they may have held, and subject to open hostility. To his credit, Meyer never wavered in his beliefs, even though his views were increasingly suspected to be liberal, at least by Tory standards. Meyer was only able to gain eventual pre-selection thanks to the old school tie.

A fellow Etonian, Nigel Birch, was retiring after serving 25 years as member for West Flintshire and strongly advocated for Meyer to be his replacement. Birch was a minor cult figure among the right faction of the Conservatives. As Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Birch — alongside Chancellor of the Exchequer Peter Thorneycroft and Treasury Minister Enoch Powell — spectacularly quit Harold Macmillan’s government after he refused their recommendation for severe austerity cuts even they admitted would likely lead to a rise in unemployment. Macmillan, with his centrist tendencies, was committed to achieving high, if not full, employment in Britain.

The imprimatur of a staunch and uncompromising monetarist like Birch was enough to gain Meyer pre-selection for West Flintshire, followed by victory in the 1970 general election.

Meyer proved to be a popular local member. Despite his privileged upbringing — or perhaps because of a ‘Lord of the Manor’ sense of responsibility — he was a tireless advocate for working class issues in his electorate. He campaigned hard to keep the local steel and aviation construction industries alive. He had no illusions about ever being invited to become part of any cabinet, nor any apparent desire to. On the rare occasion that he appeared in national news at all, it was because he had taken a stand against his own government. He regularly voted against the Thatcher Government’s proposals to curb immigration or cut welfare benefits. He was the only Conservative MP to vote against the Falkland Islands war.

He would occasionally appear in a passing newspaper column for one of these transgressions, but he was otherwise just another local member.

Until November 23, 1989, the nomination deadline for leadership of the Conservative Party. Increasingly dismayed by Thatcher’s hardline policies and uncompromising style, Meyer was easily convinced to put his hand up as a stalking horse, hoping his friend Sir Ian Gilmour or another more serious candidate from his wet faction would then rise to take his place. In the end, they all lost their nerve and stayed silently in the shadows. A disappointed Meyer reportedly lamented that “the wets were truly wet,” but he resolved to carry through with the challenge.

He never had a chance and he knew it. But he was committed to bringing about the change of leadership he had openly agitated for since the Westland Affair in 1985. Thatcher had come to loggerheads with senior members of her own cabinet over a rescue bid for Britain’s last remaining helicopter manufacturer. Refusing her Secretary of State for Defence’s recommendation for an Anglo-European consortium, the anti-Europe Thatcher instead forced a bailout by American company, Sikorsky. The affair split the cabinet, providing the first inkling of how bruising Thatcher would be to even her own colleagues.

Meyer was also alarmed by introduction of the poll tax in Scotland earlier that year, to be rolled out in the rest of the United Kingdom in 1990. In his autobiography, Stand Up and Be Counted, he said that “for the poorest in our society — the very old, some of the young, the chronic sick — things were getting slowly and steadily worse as the affluence of the large majority equally steadily increased.”

His office immediately began receiving thousands of letters overwhelmingly challenging a leader perceived as arrogant, out of touch, and increasingly dictatorial.

The less flattering letters compared him to Judas Iscariot and Julius Caesar’s assassins. One correspondent imagined that Meyer and Quisling would have been ‘good pals.’

He quickly amassed a collection of derogatory nicknames. The pro-Thatcher press labelled him Sir Nobody and Sir Anthony Whats’isname. Sir Anthony Beaumont-Dark, the member for Selly Oak in Birmingham, derided Sir Anthony as a ‘stalking donkey’.

Meyer saw himself as less of a stalking horse and more of a ‘burnt offering’.

Sir Anthony Meyer near his London home after he said he was prepared to stand against Mrs Thatcher (Getty Images)

Despite the slim-to-none chance of a Meyer victory, Tories were getting skittish.

Thatcher had endured her worst six months in office. Her provocatively anti-Europe stance helped Labour to victory in the European Parliament, the opposition’s first national election win since 1974.

She then fell out with Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe over European financial policy and with Chancellor Nigel Lawson over domestic monetary policy. It was the latter’s resignation that set off whispers of a leadership challenge.

Thatcher had been sending out mixed messaged about transitioning from power. She had been widely expected to step down on May 1989, on the tenth anniversary. She was known to have considered it during the 1987 general election, mainly at the pleading of her husband Denis, who temperamentally always felt out of his depth in political matters and particularly unsuited to the public gaze of the 10 Downing Street.

Indeed, just three weeks earlier, she had placating Cabinet colleagues by hinting it was her intention to step down by the end of the current term. But once the Meyers challenge was issued, Thatcher doubled down on her resolve to cling to power. She authorised an aide to tell The Times she needed another two terms to complete her agenda.

Meanwhile, pro-Thatcher tabloids were attacking Meyer in the most salacious of terms.

SIR NOBODY IN KGB SEX PLOT, screamed the headline in the Daily Express, dutifully reporting that Sir Anthony had ‘admitted’ to being lured into a taxi by an attractive young Russian woman who had an ‘urgent message for him’. The story was the recounting of a clumsy attempt by the Russians to recruit Meyer while he was stationed in Moscow with the Foreign Service in 1958. He never got in the cab but reported the incident to the ambassador the next day. He was put on the first flight back to London.

Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun was particularly virulent in its attacks on Meyers. The newspaper published a list of ‘Things you didn’t know about Sir What’sisname’. Among Sir Anthony’s many transgressions were that he “defended plans to make it easier for Asian fiancées to get into Britain”, and “voted with Labour against cuts in dole pay.”

Meyer even had the temerity to vote “in favour of curbs on police methods of ‘entrapping’ homosexuals.”

The Sun also reported conspiratorially that Barbadee “follows him everywhere. She spends hours in the Commons public gallery, keeping an eye on her husband.”

It was clearly meant to imply, in a juvenile nudge-nudge-wink-wink kind of way, that Sir Anthony had a wandering eye. This, ironically, would turn out to be truer than The Sun either knew or could prove at the time.

If the attacks intimidated Sir Anthony, he didn’t let it show.

“This deepens my anxiety,” he said of the criticism from within the party, “but it does not weaken my resolve.”

When the leadership vote was held on 5 December, Meyer was defeated by 314 votes to 33. Another 24 ballots were spoiled. One in six MPs had not supported their Prime Minister, opening the way for other challengers to start to emerge.

“I was quite surprised to get so many votes,” Meyer said. “I thought I’d be beaten by the abstentions. The total result I think is rather better than I’d expected and not quite as good as some of my friends were hoping for.”

In the inevitable aftermath, Meyer was deselected as a candidate for Clwyd North West two months after his challenge as punishment for his ‘treachery.’

The preselection battle was a nasty affair. Details of Meyer’s private life were leaked to tabloids, in particular the disclosure that, for the past 26 years, he had an ongoing affair with Simone Washington, a black blues singer and ex-model from the West Indies, with Barbadee’s blessing. When tabloids phoned, he would call out to her, “Darling, it’s someone from the Daily Sleaze asking about Simone.”

His electorate found less humour in the situation, voting him out of contention for the 1992 election by a two to one margin.

Mayer spent the remainder of his life passionately advocating for European engagement. He took up the role of policy director of the European Movement. He remained in the Conservative Party until 1998, departing to join the newly-formed Pro-Euro Conservative Party, standing unsuccessfully for the seat of London in the 1999 European Parliament elections. Retiring from politics for the last time, he took up lecturing on foreign affairs for his remaining days.

When Sir Anthony passed away on Christmas Eve 2005, his obituary in The Telegraph read:

“Meyer epitomised everything about the old-style Conservative Party that Mrs Thatcher most disliked. Cultured, languid and upper class, he proudly boasted of being ‘an old-fashioned sloppy wet’, and conveyed an aura of slightly dotty noblesse oblige. Worse, he had dedicated his entire political career to the cause of British integration in Europe.”

Politically, Thatcher never recovered.

The remainder of her premiership was spent constantly on guard for the next challenger to emerge, distracting her from the business of halting Britain’s slide into economic recession. The poll tax that Meyer so detested caused riots in the streets of London.

Allowing word to get out during the campaign that she would need another ten years in power to see her vision for Great Britain realised proved to be a mistake.

The following November, almost a year to the day of Sir Anthony’s challenge, Thatcher would be forced to resign at the hands of her own party.

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