May 3, 1979. After climbing through the ranks of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher becomes Britain’s first ever female Prime Minister.
It’s the morning of May 3rd, 1979 in Chelsea, West London.
Margaret Thatcher sits at her dressing table, carefully combing her wavy blonde hair. And once she is immaculately coiffed, the 53-year-old politician applies a thin stripe of pink lipstick, fixes on a pair of pearl earrings - expensive but not too flashy - and then finally gives herself several generous spritzes from a bottle of perfume.
Thatcher’s steel-gray eyes flicker across to the window. She can hear the hubbub of excitable reporters outside her garden gate. They’re waiting for a comment from Thatcher on the projected outcome of the general election, in which she is attempting to oust the incumbent Prime Minister, James Callaghan of the Labour Party. The results of the election won’t be announced until later tonight. But if the opinion polls are to be trusted, then Thatcher has every reason to feel confident.
Thatcher looks around as the door opens and her husband, Denis, pokes his head into the bedroom. Denis smiles slightly and says: “better not keep them waiting any longer.” Thatcher nods and plucks a piece of lint off the shoulder of her tweed jacket. Then she stands, strides past Denis… and heads downstairs.
As she approaches the front door, Thatcher mutters the line she’s been practicing for hours, rolling the words around her mouth. She pauses at the door and waits for Denis and her two adult children, Mark and Carol, to fall in behind her.
Then Thatcher flings open the door and steps outside to meet the press.
Thatcher paints on an indulgent smile and strolls to the foot of her garden, where she withstands the barrage of flash photographs without blinking. One reporter manages to make himself heard above the ruckus, calling out: “The polls put you comfortably ahead, Mrs. Thatcher. Do you feel confident about your election chances?”
Thatcher leans forward with a twinkle in her eye and says in her deep husky baritone: “we never count our chickens before they’re hatched. And we don’t count Number Ten Downing Street before it’s thatched.”
Just as the opinion polls predict, the Conservative Party will win the election by a landslide. Margaret Thatcher will form a government on the basis of her campaign promise to reverse Britain’s economic turmoil through a radical right-wing agenda of slashed taxes, cuts to public spending, and legislation limiting the power of trade unions. And when Thatcher does arrive at 10 Downing Street, she will do so not only as the first woman Prime Minister in British history but also as the most right-wing leader in Britain since 1945. The election will spell the dawn of a divisive new era in UK politics, and change the face of the nation that Margaret Thatcher took office to lead, after her resounding election victory on May 3rd, 1979.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 3rd, 1979: Margaret Thatcher Becomes Britain’s First Woman Prime Minister.
It’s March 1971 in a BBC television studio in London; eight years before Margaret Thatcher’s election victory.
Thatcher sits opposite a panel of interviewers, her hands folded demurely in her lap. She is the Secretary of State for Education and Science. She does her best to look relaxed, but Thatcher is acutely conscious of the cameras, and how pale she must look beneath these bright studio lights. Thatcher tilts her chin to achieve a more flattering angle, then she smiles as the presenter introduces her to the audience.
"INTERVIEWER: Good evening. This evening, a chance to meet one of the few women to become a cabinet minister: Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State for Education and Science. Mrs. Thatcher, I was in the House of Commons when you made your maiden speech and I remember you appeared to be totally without nerves."
"THATCHER: I’m never totally without nerves. I’m normally as frightened as a kitten. It's just that somehow you manage to control it."
The audience ripples with polite laughter, and Thatcher feels relieved to have this initial ice-breaker out of the way. As the interview continues, she relaxes further, answering the panel’s questions with wit and authority.
At forty-five years old, Margaret Thatcher has risen from humble beginnings to become one of the Conservative Party’s most prominent voices. The daughter of a greengrocer, Thatcher showed an aptitude for hard work and perseverance from an early age. After graduating from Oxford University, she worked briefly as a chemist and then as a lawyer before deciding that her talent for public speaking might serve her well in public office. Tough, ambitious, and uncompromising, she became a Member of Parliament at the tender age of thirty-four, and quickly rose through the ranks of the Party.
Last year, Prime Minister Edward Heath appointed Thatcher to sit in his cabinet – the most senior decision-making body in the government. Many political commentators have identified Thatcher as a future Prime Minister – though she has always dismissed such predictions. Even now, during this TV interview, someone in the audience asks about her ambitions to one day hold a more important role but as always, Thatcher waves away the suggestion.
"THATCHER: No, I don’t think in my lifetime there will be a woman Prime Minister. I’m always a realist. I don’t think there will be. I’m delighted to have someone in the audience who thinks that a woman could be Prime Minister or chancellor of the exchequer."
Thatcher speaks with conviction. But there’s an unmistakable twinkle in her eye as she shrugs off the suggestion that she could one day run the country.
Following the interview, Thatcher returns to her home in West London. She hangs her coat by the door, then pauses at the threshold of the living room. Her husband, Denis, is sitting on the sofa watching the News at Ten. Without looking away from the television, Denis raises his whiskey glass and says: “you did marvelously, dear.” Thatcher smiles, then turns and heads upstairs to the study. As always, there is work to be done.
Over the course of the next four years, Thatcher continues to demonstrate her impressive work ethic in her role as Education Secretary. She slashes government investment in public schooling, staying true to her core political belief that the state should have the smallest role possible in people’s lives. In doing so, Thatcher also reveals herself to be ruthless. In 1971, she abolishes the government’s free school milk program for children over the age of seven, earning herself a nickname in the press: “Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.”
But Thatcher’s education reforms cannot alleviate Britain’s economic problems in the early 1970s, and in 1974, the Conservative Party loses the general election. The shock defeat prompts the leader of the Party, Edward Heath, to call a leadership election in order to silence his critics and prove that he’s still the best candidate to lead the Conservatives in their fight to regain power from the Labour Party.
Heath expects to win the contest easily, with no clear alternative candidates. But then Thatcher makes a surprise announcement: she intends to run against Heath in the leadership race. Though she is something of an outsider – a plucky eccentric from the right wing of the Party – she is also regarded as tough and idealistic. Many believe her to be the perfect person to take on the formidable trade unions, whose industrial action in recent years has led to an energy crisis.
Gathering support, Margaret Thatcher will transcend her underdog status and will defeat Edward Heath, becoming the elected leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975. For the first time in history, a woman will lead a major political party in Britain. And as leader of the opposition, Thatcher will set her sights on going one step further by defeating the Labour Party at the next general election and becoming Britain’s first-ever female Prime Minister.
It’s January 1976 in London; one year after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party.
Thatcher sits behind her desk, staring in horror at the front page of the morning news. The cover story contains a report about Thatcher being dubbed the “Iron Lady” by a journalist in the Soviet Union. The Western press have caught wind of the unflattering nickname and they’re running with it.
Thatcher is appalled. She has spent years trying to cultivate a soft, motherly image to make herself more acceptable to voters. During her campaign for leader of the Conservative Party, she appeared in publicity shoots dressed as a housewife. At rallies, she often wielded a bright blue feather duster – a symbol of her intention to sweep away the stale old ideas and start afresh as a woman leader ready to clean up Britain.
The marketing strategy worked and she won the leadership race. But now this “Iron Lady” nonsense threatens to undo her hard work. It makes her sound like a grizzled old battle-ax – the exact opposite of the warm maternal image she wants to project.
So later that morning, Thatcher calls PR expert and campaign advisor, Gordon Reece. To her surprise, Gordon is in high spirits explaining that while the soft, domestic image was good for the leadership race, Thatcher will need a re-branding if she wants to reach her ultimate goal of Prime Minister. At a time when Britain is facing one of the worst economic downturns in modern history, it’s important to convince the electorate that Margaret Thatcher is tough enough for the rigors of Downing Street. The “Iron Lady” is the perfect nickname to capture both her femininity and her inner steel.
The following week, during an address to Conservative Party members at a hotel in London, Thatcher takes ownership of her new nickname.
"THATCHER: Ladies and gentlemen. I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown (audience cheers), my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved (audience laughs), the Iron Lady of the Western World!"
In the months that follow, the public perception of Margaret Thatcher continues to change. She becomes regarded as more than just the leader of the opposition Party, but somebody who could genuinely make an effective Prime Minister.
And as the 1970s wear on, the need for effective leadership becomes increasingly urgent. Unemployment has reached its highest levels since the Second World War. Meanwhile, stagnant wages and rising inflation has led to widespread industrial unrest. At a time when more than thirteen million workers are unionized, the unions’ bargaining power through collective action has never been greater.
In 1978, the government attempts to curb inflation by capping wage increases, triggering a wave of disruptive strikes. Truck drivers, grave diggers, and waste collection workers refuse to labor during these tumultuous months. By January 1979, the stench of uncollected garbage lingers over Britain’s towns and cities. Corpses lie stacked inside morgues awaiting burial. This so-called Winter of Discontent has reached a fever pitch.
And while Labour Party Prime Minister James Callaghan plays down the severity of the crisis, Thatcher seizes the opportunity to speak out against the strikes and proclaim that if she were Prime Minister, she would ensure that greedy union bosses couldn’t cripple the country as they are doing now. With Labour’s approval ratings plummeting, Thatcher knows that now is the time to attack.
Acting on the advice of her campaign strategist Gordon Reece, Thatcher enlists the services of an advertising agency called Saatchi & Saatchi. Thatcher knows that politics is a dog-eat-dog world where you need to hurt your opponents before they can hurt you, and she conveys this message to the creatives at Saatchi & Saatchi. A few weeks later, they present her with a campaign poster. It depicts a long line of people waiting outside an unemployment office below the bold caption: LABOUR ISN’T WORKING. In small letters in the corner, another caption reads: Britain is better off with the Conservatives.
At first, Thatcher doesn’t know what to make of the poster. She doesn’t understand why the word “Labour” appears so much larger than “Conservatives.” But Gordon Reece assures her that the poster is perfect; it highlights the Labour Party’s incompetence and paints the Conservatives as the Party of economic responsibility.
As the poster is rolled out across the nation, Labour’s approval ratings continue to fall. In March 1979, Thatcher capitalizes on the opposition’s collapse in the polls by calling a vote of no confidence against the government of James Callaghan. It is a bold and aggressive move. If enough members of Parliament declare that they have lost confidence in the current administration, then Callaghan will have no choice but to let the public decide on his – and Britain’s – future by calling a general election.
The vote goes Thatcher’s way. Callaghan loses the no-confidence motion and calls a general election. On May 3rd, 1979, the people of Britain go to the ballot box and cast their vote.
Along with the rest of the nation, Thatcher will watch at home on television as the results are declared around the country. It will gradually become clear that the exit polls were accurate, and the Conservatives will win. By tomorrow morning, Britain will begin a dramatic new chapter of its history – with a woman writing the script.
It’s May 4th, 1979; the day after Margaret Thatcher’s electoral victory.
Beneath overcast skies, a convoy of black cars sweeps along Whitehall — a major thoroughfare in the heart of London. From the backseat of one of the vehicles, Margaret Thatcher gazes out of the window, an inscrutable smile on her face.
Just hours ago, the final result in the general election was called. The Conservatives won by seven percentage points, with a 43-seat majority in the House of Commons. Margaret Thatcher has been elected Prime Minister – the first woman leader of any Western democracy. And now, Thatcher and her husband Denis are on their way to Number 10 Downing Street, which will become their home for the next eleven years – longer than any other Prime Minister of the twentieth century.
The convoy pulls into Downing Street. Police officers hold back mobs of reporters, photographers, and ordinary members of the public, who have all turned up to witness this historic occasion. A policeman opens the car door and Thatcher steps out onto the curb, followed by Denis. Dressed in a bright blue skirt and jacket, Thatcher stands out against the dull gray brick of Downing Street. She smiles and waves at the spectators – though there is an audible chorus of booing that cuts through the cheers. Thatcher doesn’t seem to mind, though; being liked has never been a concern of hers.
So flanked by several officers, Thatcher approaches a group of journalists. She leans forward and speaks into one of the outstretched microphones.
"THATCHER: Where there is discord, may we bring harmony; where there is error, may we bring truth; where there is doubt, may we bring faith, and where there is despair, may we bring hope."
Despite the sentiment of unity she expresses on the steps on Downing Street, Thatcher’s time in office will be one of the most divisive in British political history. Her right-wing agenda will see her privatize national industries, introduce spending cuts to welfare and public housing, and pursue an aggressive foreign policy, taking Britain to war with Argentina over possession of the Falkland Islands. Most notoriously, Thatcher will force the closures of hundreds of coal mines – crippling the economies of working-class towns in the north of England, and deploying armed riot police to crack down on striking miners. For these reasons, the Iron Lady remains a polarizing figure. But despite her complicated and controversial legacy, Margaret Thatcher made history when she became the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain on May 3rd, 1979.
Next on History Daily. May 4th, 1904. Automotive pioneers Charles Rolls and Henry Royce meet in Manchester, England, and decide to go into business, forming Rolls-Royce.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.