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Ford Library

The Ford Library at Ann Arbor, Michigan, holds a scattering of relevant documents.

MT's election as Conservative leader

On 4 February 1975 MT defeated Edward Heath in the first ballot of the Conservative leadership election.

The State Department brought the event to the notice of the White House, admitting surprise. They probably had little awareness of who Margaret Thatcher was at this point (misdescribing her job in the shadow cabinet). They anticipated victory in the second ballot for the "popular Willie Whitelaw", whose job under Heath they also misreport.

When MT defeated Whitelaw there was still more surprise at State, then dignified retreat to a position of scepticism. "To win a future election she will have to move an appreciable distance from her position on the right-wing of her party".

Meeting the President, September 1975

In September 1975 MT visited the US and Canada in her first big overseas trip as Conservative Leader. Her request to meet President Ford was readily granted, on the recommendation of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, as conforming to standard practice for British Leaders of the Opposition.

Such courtesies conceal the slide in Britain's standing in the US. Britain's economy performed disastrously in 1975-76, with inflation in the mid-20s (peaking in 1976 at 26 per cent), public expenditure rapidly increasing as a share of national income and sterling under heavy attack, forcing the British Government to seek huge international loans. A note for the President by Alan Greenspan - then Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers - reveals him shivering at the possibility that the US might one day follow the British path. Ford sent it on to his speechwriters.

Kissinger was even more negative. His scornful private view of the UK at this time - "Britain is a tragedy" - was captured in the note of an Oval Office conversation with President Ford on 8 January 1975.

None of this, however, seems to have caused the US Government to wonder if MT might emerge as a serious political force and champion of British national revival. If nothing else, she must have seemed a long way from power: there was no expectation on the American side of an early British election and, understandably, no anticipation either of the sea change in British electoral opinion that came in 1978-79.

The meeting with Ford was MT's first with a US President, and the visit her first to the Oval Office. She was on best behaviour, as anyone would have been in her position, though the memcon shows that she was always authentically herself, particularly in the exchange about Communist propaganda, where surely Ford was joking, but she was not.

One would not have thought, from the evidence of US records, that MT was a critic of the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger policy of detente, but less than two months earlier she had made a speech in Chelsea attacking its latest manifestation (the Helsinki negotiations glancingly mentioned at the opening of the meeting) and aligning herself with the radical Republican outlook already associated with Ronald Reagan. The State Department seems not to have noticed the speech; Kissinger briefed the President that in Conservative foreign policy "new departures under her leadership [are] most unlikely".

MT's remarks to the press during her meeting with President Ford, 18 September 1975

MT's press conference after meeting President Ford, 18 September 1975

MT's letter of thanks to President Ford, 21 September 1975

 

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