Today, David Cameron celebrates his 6th anniversary as Tory leader. Even before reaching this milestone, Cameron had already surpassed half his predecessors since 1945 (Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard). This time next year, he will have overtaken two more (John Major and Harold Macmillan).
A more telling comparison, perhaps, given the revival in Tory fortunes under his leadership, chronicled and explained in my recent book with Peter Dorey and Mark Garnett, is that by the time of the next General Election, presumably in 2015, Cameron will have led his party for longer than his three immediate predecessors put together. His likely longevity as leader is, of course, one consequence of the party’s return to office (albeit in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) in 2010. It is, however, only one: the other is the party’s system of electing its leader, something which makes it hard, but by no means impossible, for Cameron to be unseated, should events take a turn for the worse.
Until 1965, the Tory leader was selected via an informal ‘magic circle’. In February that year, the party unveiled a more transparent procedure, which provided for a series of eliminative ballots, up to a maximum of three, in which MPs (and they alone) cast a vote. Designed to preserve as many of the perceived advantages of the ‘magic circle’ as possible (including discretion; speed; the possible ‘emergence’ of a ‘compromise’ candidate, and deference to ‘expert’ opinion), the new rules changed practically everything else. In subsequent contests, candidates were increasingly aligned with ideological divisions in the party; campaigning became overt and organised; and, more often than not, the success (or otherwise) of such campaigns significantly affected the result. Certainly, Heath in 1975 and Thatcher in 1990 both failed to secure re-election thanks, in part, to their own badly managed campaigns.
In 1997, William Hague became the last leader to be elected under the 1965 rules. The following year, a new procedure was introduced. The changes were essentially twofold. First, the 1975 rule allowing a challenge to the incumbent every year was scrapped. Henceforth, 15 per cent of MPs would have to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding a vote of confidence in order to trigger a contest. If the leader won this initial vote (a simple majority would suffice), he or she would be immune to a further challenge for the next 12 months. If defeated, the leader would have to resign. A series of eliminative ballots among MPs would then follow. Once they had reduced the field to two candidates, party members would then vote for one or the other in a postal ballot.
In 2003, Iain Duncan Smith, the first leader elected under this system in 2001, was deposed by MPs following a vote of no confidence, and replaced, without a contest, by Michael Howard. In 2005, Cameron defeated David Davis in a postal ballot of party members, having fallen short of a majority, in actual votes, among MPs. The rules now dictate that only MPs (or Cameron himself) can decide when it’s time for him to go. At the time of writing, 46 Tory MPs would have to demand a motion of no confidence in Cameron’s leadership and 153 of them support it to force him to resign. While that is probably not going to happen any time soon, there is ample evidence to suggest not all Tory MPs are exactly thrilled with Cameron’s leadership. Witness the 81 rebels who voted against October’s three-line whip on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU (and there were plenty more who stayed loyal through gritted teeth). And, as I pointed out at the time, a majority of Tory MPs (104 on the first ballot, 108 on the second) actually voted for the two right-wing candidates, David Davis and Liam Fox, not Cameron, in the leadership election of 2005.
So, just as Margaret Thatcher threatened to do in 1987, Cameron might wish to go on and on. But to do that, he needs to keep his MPs on side.