Willie Whitelaw
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office:

June 6, 1975 - March 5, 1982

Preceded by: Roy Jenkins
Succeeded by: James Callaghan
Leader of the Conservative Party
In office:

1972 - 1982

Preceded by: Reginald Maudling
Succeeded by: Michael Heseltine
Leader of the Opposition
In office:

July 18, 1972 - June 6. 1975

March 5, 1982 - 1983

Preceded by:

Reginald Maudling

James Callaghan

Succeeded by:

Roy Jenkins

Michael Heseltine


June 28 1918, Nairn, Scotland

Died July 1 1999, Penrith, Cumbria
Nationality: British
Political party: Conservative

Celia Sprot

Children: 4
Alma mater:

Trinity College, Cambridge

Occupation: Politician
Religion: Church of Scotland

William (Willie) Whitelaw was a British politician who served as Prime Minister (1975 - 1979).

He was elected Tory leader following the resignation of Reginald Maudling in 1972.

The first Conservative Prime Minister for since Harold MacMillan, his landslide victory in the 1975 general election ended 16 years of Labour government.

Whitelaw's first government prioritised trade union reform and stabilising the economy, this involved making large cuts in public spending.

His government suffered from bitter cabinet divisions between One Nation Conservatives like Heath and Pym, and Right Wingers like Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher.

His government was narrowly reelected in 1979, but a series of strikes, and Chancellor Margaret Thatcher's unpopular 1981 budget contributed to a series of by election defeats. In November 1981 the Tories lost their majority and had to rely on a handful of liberal rebels, led by Cyril Smith, to pass legislation. The Smith - Whitelaw deal did not last long, and in January 1982 Whitelaw last a motion of confidence and called a snap election.

His government was defeated at the 1982 general election, Whitelaw reluctantly maintained his position as Conservative leader for 18 months to try to unite the party, and retired to the House of Lords at the 1987 election.

Early Life

Early Political Career

Leader of the Opposition

Following Maudling's resignation he was seen as the clear favorite to be the next Tory leader.

Prime Minister

Whitelaw assumed office as Prime Minister the day after the election, assembling a cabinet as carefully balanced as it was in opposition. Heath was appointed Foreign Secretary.

The first two years of his premiership were largely peaceful and successful, although labour's position in opinion polls dramatically improved after Jenkins was replaced as leader by james Callaghan. Whitelaw was a relatively popular political figure

A series of strikes over the winter of 1978 - 1979 severely damaged the conservatives in opinion polls. Whitelaw refused the view of those like Heath who thought it best to call a snap election and capitalise on public discontent with the actions of the unions.

In September Whitelaw announced a general election for October, and widely expected that he would increase his majority, maybe even by a landslide. But the Tory election campaign fell down badly. Whitelaw was unable to capitalise on the grandfatherly image that had so endeared him to the general public in 1975 due to the fact the Callaghan was six years older than himself. His party was badly divided over economic policy and European policy, and the strikes of the previous winter were still relatively fresh in the public mind.

The result was on doubt for many hours on election night, with large labour swings in several key marginals. The final results was that the Tories were reduced to a majority of just four, making it almost impossible to last a full four to five year parliamentary term. Whitelaw announced that he would seek to serve a full term in office and that the new government would seek to implement the conservative manifesto.

Whitelaw planned to call another election when the conservatives improved their position in the polls, hoping that by some point in 1980 he would be able to call a snap election and win a more workable majority. However, the conservative position in opinion polls further declined, partly due to the ruthless economic policies of the Chancellor, Margaret Thatcher, which drew heavy criticism from both Labour and the Liberals.

At the Crosby by election in November 1981 the Tories finally lost their parliamentary majority. A deal was struck with a small group of Liberals led by Cyril Smith to keep Whitelaw in office, with the intention of holding off and calling an election in May/June 1982. However in January 1982 the short lived deal fell apart when Smith announced he could no longer support "a government with no moral authority". On January 29th 1982 a no confidence motion was tabled by the labour opposition, which Whitelaw lost. He was forced to call a general election for March 4th.  

The campaign was a disaster for the conservatives, who lost what little momentum they had. Labour was victorious, winning a victory on a similar scale to 1966.

First Whitelaw Ministry 1975 - 1979

Prime Minister - Willie Whitelaw

Chancellor of the Exchequer - Robert Carr

Foreign Secretary - Edward Heath

Home Secretary -

Second Whitelaw Ministry 1979 - 1983

Prime Minister - Willie Whitelaw

Chancellor of the Exchequer - Margaret Thatcher

Foreign Secretary - Francis Pym

Home Secretary -

Post Premiership


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