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Sir John Major’s 25th Anniversary of Election as Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister

In November 1990, Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned as Deputy Prime Minister. The resignation of an important figure in the Thatcher administration meant that a leadership contest seemed more likely, and this was triggered by Michael Heseltine.

The first round of voting on 20 November was not enough for Margaret Thatcher to win an outright victory, with the Prime Minister gaining 204 votes, Michael Heseltine gaining 152 votes, with 6 abstentions and 17 void ballots. Despite initial plans to stay on, on 22 November, Margaret Thatcher resigned, saying she was persuaded after advice from her colleagues to stand down.

John Major, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, both announced their intentions to stand. On 27 November 1990, the second ballot took place, with John Major obtaining 185 votes, Michael Heseltine obtaining 131 votes and Douglas Hurd 56 votes. Mr Heseltine and Mr Hurd withdrew, and Mr Major was therefore elected as leader of the Conservative Party.

On 28 November 1990, John Major became Prime Minister after being summoned to Buckingham Palace by the Queen. He was the youngest Prime Minister, at the age of 47, since Lord Rosebery in 1894.

Mr Major spoke to journalists outside Number 10 on his return from the palace. In his autobiography, Mr Major wrote of his first entrance into Number 10 as Prime Minister;

“As I walked into Number 10 I was met by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, and the staff, who were lined up from the front door down the long corridor which leads to the Cabinet Room; they greeted my entrance with applause. Andrew Turnbull escorted me into the Cabinet Room; Norma went upstairs to the flat. There were already decisions waiting which needed prime ministerial approval”.

On the 29 November 1990, Major had his first Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister at 11am, with full details of his new Cabinet published that day. He then faced his first Prime Ministers Question Time as Prime Minister that afternoon.

Major also spoke again to journalists when leaving Downing Street on the 28 November 1990. On the day after Major held his first Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister at 11am, with full details of his new Cabinet published that day. He then faced his first Prime Ministers Question Time as Prime Minister that afternoon.

John Major’s first speech after becoming Prime Minister was held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre on 4 December 1990. He spoke warmly of Margaret Thatcher and also put forwards his vision of a new society, saying:

“Amidst the inevitable competitive thrust of life, it should be a compassionate society. Genuinely compassionate - because some people do need a special helping hand to help them enjoy a full life of choice and independence. And we should never forget that small changes in the lives of private people are every bit as important to them as dramatic changes in the lives of public people. And a classless society: not in the grey sense of drab uniformity - but in the sense that we remove the artificial barriers to choice and achievement.”

The next General Election was held on 9 April 1992 when the Conservative Party won a majority and which was the fourth consecutive election victory for the party.

John Major wrote later of the situation which existed when he became Prime Minister;

“My inheritance was unpromising. We were on the eve of a war. The economic bubble of the 1980s was bursting. Inflation was approaching double figures. Interest rates were at 14 per cent. Unemployment had begun to rise by fifty thousand a month. House prices were falling. The economy was in the first phase of acute recession. Ahead lay a collapse in growth, equity values, sales and confidence - all directly traceable to the size of the boom in the late 1980s, although for some our membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism was to prove a convenient scapegoat”.


Margaret Thatcher

Prime Minister 1979-1990

John Major

Prime Minister 1990-1997