Leading the opposition
The Labor government that came to office after the 1974 election oversaw a long period of crippling inflation, strikes and disaffection that came to be called Britain’s “winter of discontent.” Mrs. Thatcher bided her time, then, on May 4, 1979, took advantage of public dissatisfaction to lead the Conservatives to a general election victory. She took up residence in No. 10 Downing Street.
The first years of her administration went badly. Her government’s attempt to tame inflation by boosting interest rates and sales taxes produced even higher inflation and unemployment. The Irish Republican Army staged dramatic acts of terrorism, killing, among others, the war hero Lord Mountbatten and dozens of British soldiers and engaging in fatal hunger strikes that served to highlight the government’s inability to end the sectarian troubles of Northern Ireland.
In 1984, Mrs. Thatcher was nearly a victim of the IRA herself — a bomb that the group planted devastated a Brighton hotel where she was staying during a party conference, killing five people and injuring 34. She emerged unhurt and went on to give a rousing speech of denunciation.
At other times, she quarreled with cabinet members, frustrated that she had not felt politically able to install true-blue Thatcherites in most jobs, politicians whom she would come to call “one of us.” In December 1981, satisfaction with her leadership reached a new low, 25 percent, in public opinion polls.
War in the Falkland Islands
Then, in the spring of 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.
Mrs. Thatcher responded with fury, dispatching a large naval task force to South America and making statements that seemed designed to discourage compromise by effectively calling for Argentina’s unconditional surrender.
“No one would be more pleased than I should be if either President Leopoldo Galtieri or the commander of their local garrison should say, ‘This is absurd that we should sacrifice our young people in this way and we will not fight further,’ ” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
She personally approved a British submarine’s sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, in which more than 300 Argentine sailors died. The attack came as the vessel was sailing away from the British naval task force, and critics charged that it was done to block any compromise settlement.