Conservative party, British political party: Heath, Thatcher, and Major

Heath, Thatcher, and Major

In 1965, Edward Heath became the first leader chosen through election. Heath led a Conservative government from 1970 to 1974 that faced the problems of a stagnant economy and a declining international political position. In response, the party moved to curb the power of trade unions and encouraged more economic self-reliance. In foreign affairs, it continued the policy of restricting Great Britain's Commonwealth and international roles while expanding ties with Western Europe, as demonstrated by Britain's entry (1973) into the European Community (now the European Union [EU]). In subsequent years, however, divisions within the party over Britain's relationship with Europe remained unresolved and at time undermined Conservative governments.

In 1974, the Conservatives lost two elections and Heath was replaced as party leader by Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to lead the party. Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990, the longest uninterrupted government of the 20th cent. Her government dismantled much of Britain's postwar welfare state, and the party became identified with free-market economic policies. In 1990, Thatcher's leadership was challenged by members of the party; in the ensuing elections, she was succeeded by John Major. Under his leadership, the Conservatives won the 1992 general election. The party received a resounding defeat in the 1997 elections, and Major was replaced as party leader by William Hague.

In 2001 the party, which had come to be seen as anti–European Union, was again trounced at the polls by Labour, leading Hague to resign. Iain Duncan Smith was chosen to succeed Hague but served only two years as party leader before he was replaced by Michael Howard. The party made gains in the 2005 elections, but Labour's majority, though reduced, remained secure. Following the elections Howard announced his resignation, and David Cameron was chosen to succeed him. Cameron moved the party more toward the center, and in 2010 the Conservatives won a plurality. They formed a coalition (2010–15) with the Liberal Democrats, and Cameron became prime minister.

Cameron remained in office after the party won a slim majority in 2015, but his promises to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU and to hold a referendum on EU membership exacerbated the party divisions that had led to those commitments. Cameron, who supported remaining in the EU, subsequently (2016) failed to secure a pro-EU result in the referendum, and resigned as prime minister and party leader; Theresa May succeeded him. Early elections in 2017 resulted in a Conservative plurality; the party formed a minority government with the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists. May subsequently was unable to craft a negotiated British withdrawal from and future relationship with the EU around which the divided party could unite. She survived a leadership challenge and no-confidence vote early in 2019, but resigned as party leader that June. Boris Johnson subsequently became party leader and prime minister and, campaigning on the promise to exit from the EU, led the party to a sizable majority late in the year.

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