- Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 1975
Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had called and unexpectedly lost the February 1974 general election. Although the Labour Party were able only to form a minority government, the following October 1974 general election saw them obtain a three-seat majority, and it was widely expected that Heath (who had led the party for the previous decade but lost three of the four general elections he contested) would not be leader of the party for much longer.
At the time the rules for electing a party leader only applied when the post was vacant and there was no way to challenge an incumbent. Heath faced many critics calling for either his resignation or a change in the rules for leadership elections to allow for a challenge. Heath eventually agreed with the 1922 Committee that there would be a review of the rules for leadership elections and subsequently he would put himself up for re-election.
A review was conducted under the auspices of Heath's predecessor Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Two recommendations were made, though neither was to make a difference in 1975 (although they would prove crucial in future years). The leader would henceforth be elected annually, whether the party was in opposition or government, in the period following a Queen's Speech, though in most years this would prove a formality. Also on the first round the requirement for a victorious candidate to have a lead of 15% over their nearest rival was modified so that this would now be 15% of the total number of MPs, not just those voting for candidates.
Following the review, Heath called a leadership election for 4 February 1975, in order to assert his authority as leader of the party. Many expected the contest to be a walkover, believing there was no clear alternative to Heath after Keith Joseph had ruled himself out following controversial remarks and William Whitelaw had pledged loyalty to Heath.
However Margaret Thatcher opted to stand, as did the fringe backbencher Hugh Fraser. Even then many believed that Heath would win easily. Thatcher's support was seen as minimal, with all the Conservative supporting daily newspapers backing Heath (although the weekly The Spectator backed Thatcher).
The first ballot had the following result:
Ballot: 4 February 1975 Candidate Votes % Margaret Thatcher 130 49.1 Edward Heath 119 44.9 Hugh Fraser 16 6.0
Heath resigned, but another ballot was needed. This was held on 11 February.
Ballot: 11 February 1975 Candidate Votes % Margaret Thatcher 146 53.3 William Whitelaw 79 28.9 Geoffrey Howe 19 6.9 James Prior 19 6.9 John Peyton 11 4.0
49-year-old Thatcher was the first (and to date the only) woman to be elected leader of a major political party in the United Kingdom. And she would also go on to become the nation's first female prime minister.
However, Margaret Beckett was interim leader of the Labour Party from John Smith's death in May 1994 until the election of Tony Blair in July 1994, and Harriet Harman served as acting Labour leader from Gordon Brown's resignation in May 2010 until September 2010, but neither Beckett nor Harman was elected to such a position.
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