December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Thatcher purges moderates in 1983

3 min read
In 1983, Thatcher emerged triumphant from a general election and set about a purge of moderates from her cabinet as Tony McMahon reports

6/8/1982 President Reagan during a meeting with Prime Minister Thatcher at 10 Downing Street during a trip to the United Kingdom with Alexander Haig and Francis Pym

In 1983, Thatcher won a crushing majority in the general election. She had promised not to purge moderates in the event of victory but now seized the moment and axed a couple of her best known opponents. The target of her ire were so-called “wets” – a term she coined in 1979 referring to Tories deemed to be not on-side. Often characterised as bumbling aristocratic men who favoured ‘One Nation’ Toryism and loathed Thatcher’s untrammelled free market policies.

Policies that had exacerbated the early 1980s recession and left large areas of the country as economic wastelands. Something glossed over in some of the modern hagiographies of Thatcher. Not only was the political Left horrified by Thatcherism – Labour and the trade unions – but the old guard of the Tories. However, the horror of the wets was motivated by different considerations. They feared a breakdown of deference and the social order.

MPs like Ian Gilmour, an Etonian born into the nobility, who opposed Thatcher’s monetarist economics and constant desire for fights with Europe. He was an early victim of Thatcher’s hatred of wets being shown the door in 1981. Ten years later, after Thatcher had been forced out as Prime Minister, he published a scathing analysis of his former boss called Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcherism. But other wets tried to hold out and serve under a Prime Minister they not so secretly detested in the forlorn hope they could exercise some influence.

DISCOVER: The turbulent Labour Party of the 1980s

1983 – Thatcher purges moderates from the Cabinet

In Thatcher’s 1983 purge of the moderates – it was one such wet called Francis Pym who would feel the axe. With the general election won, she shuffled twelve positions in her Cabinet. Loyalty and closeness to her way of thinking were rewarded. Speaking out of line or being generally wet was punished. And so Pym was kicked out as Foreign Secretary.

During the election, this normally calm and controlled figure blurted out that he rather hoped the Tories didn’t win a thumping majority because that would be “better” for democracy. The Prime Minister was incandescent with rage. Here was yet another example of wet treachery.

It’s doubtful that Thatcher would have moved so decisively against her opponents in the rockier part of her first term in office. But with the Falklands War boost and an increased majority in the House of Commons, Pym could go. And his ouster was a broadside fired across the bows of other wets still in her administration. Michael Heseltine in particular – long suspected of being a plotter.

Thatcher also moved Home Secretary William Whitelaw sideways to a more junior position. Whitelaw had been in post during the summer of riots in 1981 when city after city in the UK went up in flames. Toxteth, Brixton and Moss Side in Liverpool, London and Manchester respectively had been districts witnessing shocking scenes of urban unrest. But for the Tory right-wing, he was too soft on law and order. And Thatcher was always up for pandering to the hang’em-and-flog’em brigade.

Cabinet is not free of wets

To maintain Tory party unity, Thatcher couldn’t entirely purge the moderates. Some had to remain. James Prior as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Secretary of Energy Peter Walker for example. But now they were outnumbered by Thatcher’s men (and they were all men by the way). The ‘dries’. Ideologues like Sir Keith Joseph at Education. Fawning admirers like Cecil Parkinson at Trade and Industry – the very epitome of a 1980s slick politician. And the ever faithful Norman Tebbit at Employment. Thatcher allies like Sir Geoffrey Howe who took Pym’s job would eventually turn against the PM but not for another seven years.

Leave a Reply