BORIS Johnson could learn this week if any Conservative MP is ready to try and wrest control of the party and country from him but just over 32 years ago a Welsh MP emerged as a surprise challenger to Margaret Thatcher. 

A leadership battle will commence if 54 Conservative MPs write to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote but back in 1989 an MP only needed a proposer and seconder to make a bid for the party leadership and the keys to Downing Street. 

In her tenth year in Downing Street Britain’s first female prime minister knew that the Islwyn MP who sat across from her at the dispatch box wanted to take her place. But grumblings within the Conservative Party over her style of leadership, and the party’s favourite point of disagreement, Europe, led to an unexpected challenge from her own backbenches. 

READ MORE: The UK has a lot of form for changing PM during a time of crisis

As the Conservative decade drew to a close Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party was 14 points ahead in the polls and unease among Conservative MPs was growing. In November the MP for Clwyd North West made his move.

Sir Anthony Meyer, an old Etonian who served as an officer with the Scots Guards suffering an injury during the D Day landings, was from the ‘wet’ wing of the party that Thatcher had sidelined since she took control in 1975. 

Ignored by the party leadership since he had been a parliamentary private secretary in his hero Ted Heath’s government from 1972 to 74 he had no ambition or expectation of becoming prime minister. 

But he hoped by initiating a leadership contest, using Conservative Party rules at the time which allowed for annual nominations for leader, Thatcher’s other, better-known rivals in the party would come forward. 

Confirming his intentions, the 69-year-old said he hoped “somebody much better qualified than I will come forward as a challenger”. 

All eyes were on Swansea born Michael Heseltine, who had stormed out of cabinet in 1986, or plotters hoped Port Talbot born Sir Geoffrey Howe, who had dramatically resigned as deputy prime minister that month, or the foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, would step forward. 

The National Wales: Then defence secretary Michael Heseltine with prime minister Margaret ThatcherThen defence secretary Michael Heseltine with prime minister Margaret Thatcher

During the week between announcing his intention and nominations closing Meyer looked an increasingly isolated figure with the press reporting his support had dwindled to “just a handful” – as well as outright mocking him. 

He saw himself as a ‘Trojan horse’ - and in conventional terms was a ‘stalking horse’ candidate - but some other Conservatives described him as more pantomime horse while the right wing press didn’t bother with any such pleasantries. The Daily Express described him as ‘Sir Nobody’ and he was dismissed as a ‘stalking donkey’. 

A profile in the decade’s best-selling newspaper, and pro Thatcher tabloid, The Sun informed its readers of ‘Ten things you didn’t know about Sir Anthony What’s isname'.

The agenda was clear but not entirely unfair as though he had represented West Flintshire, and then Clwyd North West, for 19 consecutive years in parliament his pro-European and socially liberal views carried little weight with the party hierarchy.

As the only Conservative to have voted against the use of force to retake the Falklands, and with Labour against benefits cuts during the 1984 miners’ strike, his record was unacceptable to the Tory right and the right wing papers – which did find much excitement in his personal life. 

An encounter in a taxi with a young female KGB spy, while a diplomat in 1950s Moscow, became headline news and reporters believed his ever-present wife, Barbadee, kept him on a short leash due to his 26 year affair with the jazz and blues singer Simone Washington. In truth keeping a mistress had been sanctioned. 

While Meyer may have kept Barbadee on side he was finding more difficulty with his local Conservatives, who had already attempted to deselect him, and the wider Welsh party due to his leadership challenge. 

READ MORE: Was the Yes Minister Christmas special a blueprint for Boris Johnson?

Conservatives in Clwyd North West were already angered by their MP’s support for Sunday opening of shops, and Margaret May, chairman of the constituency’s women’s committee, told reporters: “My members have formally deplored Sir Anthony’s behaviour about replacing Mrs Thatcher, and we do not wish to be associated with him.” 

The National Wales: The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990

The Welsh Area Conservative Council met, for a pre-arranged meeting in Llandrindod on the Saturday after Meyer put his name forward, but there was no appetite to see a second MP from a Welsh constituency in ten years in Downing Street. 

Chairman Eric Howells phoned Meyer, to ask him to stand down, and the council sent a letter of support to Mrs Thatcher. 

Pembroke MP Nicholas Bennett described Meyer as on “some sort of ego trip” but though the Conservative wagons were rallying around the leader who had won another three figure majority two years earlier, chinks were appearing in the Iron Lady’s armour. 

Howe’s resignation had exposed divisions over Europe and Thatcher’s leadership style, but her response to Meyer’s challenge was to declare she intended to lead her party into the next two elections which could have extended her premiership to 1997 and beyond. 

But Meyer was unconvinced, stating he was “forcing the party” to face up to its problems. 

“The party needs in good time to face up to the question whether Margaret Thatcher, despite her terrific achievements over 10 years, is the person most likely to be able to safeguard those achievements at the next election,” argued Meyer. 

The National Wales: Geoffrey Howe during his resignation speech in the House of Commons Picture: PAGeoffrey Howe during his resignation speech in the House of Commons Picture: PA

Despite the apparent support for the prime minister in the parliamentary and constituency parties it seemed the back bencher wasn’t as isolated as his detractors sought to portray him.  

Labour seemed to be in the ascendency and a poll for television station Granada found half of Tory voters in Clwyd North West would back Meyer as their Tory MP at the next election and almost 40 per cent supported his leadership challenge. 

READ MORE: How one of the world's biggest anti-nuclear protests started in Wales

The Western Mail had warned if up to 50 of the 373 Tory MPs abstained it would be an embarrassment for Thatcher whose leadership in “curbing the union barons’ tyranny” the newspaper admired but acknowledged anxieties over her approach to public services, utilities and relations with Europe. 

“Times are changing and if Mrs Thatcher’s success is to continue she must change with them,” said the paper in an editorial on Meyer’s challenge. 

When the secret ballot of Tory MPs was held Thatcher had won. But the 314 votes for her would ultimately prove less significant than the 33 for Meyer and 24 spoiled papers and three non-voters. 

That some 60 Conservatives had refused to support Thatcher, in what was the first challenge to her leadership, had exposed a weakness. 

When Theresa May won a vote of confidence in December 2018, similar to that which it's speculated Johnson could face, she announced her resignation just six months later. 

Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister would last just 12 more months after Meyer’s stand had exposed significant doubts over Thatcher’s leadership within the party she had led to three election victories since 1979. 

In November 1990 Heseltine and other figures that failed to respond in 89, when Meyer is said to have lamented ‘the wets were truly wet,’ did act in what has been described as a Welsh coup due to prominent role played by Heseltine, Howe and other Conservatives with Welsh backgrounds. 

While the revelations over Downing Street parties, some now subject to police investigation, are the immediate danger to Johnson’s leadership there are internal Tory divisions which may be further exposed. 

The party has lost ‘true blue’ seats at by-elections in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire with grumblings Johnson’s government, that promotes a ‘levelling up’ agenda to support former industrial areas, that traditionally voted Labour, is no longer in touch with its own traditional supporters.

Meyer, like Heath and Heseltine, was an enthusiastic proponent of greater European integration and supported the Airbus factory which remains in his former constituency today, but had been pushed to the fringes of the parliamentary party. 

When John Major, the last of Thacher’s chosen successors, became prime minister Heseltine became deputy prime minister, though Europe still remained a toxic dividing line in the party. To win his majority in 2019, and to purge his opponents from the Tory benches, Johnson – once an advocate of the European Union – not only sidelined pro EU voices but prevented his greatest Conservative critics from standing as candidates. 

The National Wales: Margaret Thatcher with her successor John MajorMargaret Thatcher with her successor John Major

After his leadership challenge that too would prove to be Meyer’s fate. Before there was a chance to see what the fallout in Westminster would be from the challenge to Thatcher Clwyd North West Conservatives had moved against their MP.  

He was deselected in January 1990, by a majority of two to one, and unable to stand at the 1992 election became a director of the European Movement and a lecturer on European affairs before his death, aged 84, in 2005. 

The 1992 election was the last the Conservatives would win until David Cameron secured a small majority in 2015. The decision to replace Thatcher, who resigned after a narrow win in the first round of the 1990 leadership contest, with Major was credited as helping the party to an unprecedented fourth general election victory.  

While Labour is currently calling for Johnson to stand down privately Keir Starmer will be hoping Johnson’s departure comes later rather than sooner. 

READ MORE: 'Careful what you wish for - Johnson's replacement will be worse'

At the time of Meyer’s challenge Glyn Mathias was an executive with ITN who that week saw his hard work to secure live television coverage of the Commons rewarded with the first televised proceedings. 

Earlier in the 80s Mathias was a familiar face on News at Ten as ITN’s political editor but underlining perhaps what an outsider Meyer was in terms of the big hitters in 1980s Westminster Mathias has little personal recollection of him. 

“I knew of him but can’t say I ever met him more than once or twice,” said Mathias who served as BBC Wales’ political editor at the end of the 90s before retiring to Brecon. 

“He felt on a point of principle he should have been a stalking horse for other people’s general discontentment at that time but it was the idea the prime minister could be challenged, that was the importance of his move,” said Mathias. 

READ MORE: Is this Sir Keir Starmer's Neil Kinnock moment?

“Nobody expected it to be a serious challenge but it was a token of the dissatisfaction among Conservative MPs and Mrs T at that point was in nothing like the troubled situation Boris Johnson finds himself in.” 

Of any similarities between the final months of 1989 and the current situation in Westminster Mathias said he has struggled to remember such a “febrile atmosphere with a prime minister under such stress”. 

Mathias said: “It took a long time for Mrs Thatcher to be deposed and a long time for Theresa May, it is difficult to remove a prime minister, especially if they appear to believe in themselves.” 

While Mathias says he no longer has any “detailed acquaintance” with the comings and goings at Westminster he finds the description of life behind Britain’s most famous front door unfamiliar. 

“An organisation like Downing Street is led from the top I can’t imagine any other prime minister allowing that kind of behaviour.” 

Whether Conservative MPs will allow Boris Johnson to remain as prime minister remains to be seen but history suggests winning a leadership challenge rarely guarantees a secure future in Downing Street. 

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.