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Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 1975: Wikis

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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 small majority.

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 and/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 February 4, 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:

Results

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

Thatcher was the first (and to date the only) woman to be elected leader of a major political party in the United Kingdom. (Deputy Leader Margaret Beckett was, technically, leader of the Labour Party from John Smith's death in May 1994 until the election of Tony Blair in July 1994.)

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