The Conservative party beauty contest of 1963

Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Image by itmpa

Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Image by itmpa

Almost exactly fifty years ago, in 1963, Conservative Party delegates gathered in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, expecting to be addressed by their Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Instead, they were informed that their leader would be stepping down due to ill-health. The quiet, unassuming Foreign Secretary, Lord Home told shocked delegates of Macmillan’s wish ‘that it will soon be possible for the customary processes of consultation to be carried on within the party about its future leadership’.

The timing of Macmillan’s decision with the start of the Conservative Party Conference meant that it rapidly turned into a beauty contest between three contenders: Rab Butler, the Deputy Prime Minister; Lord Hailsham, the Leader of the House of Lords; and Reginald Maudling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Why then did none of these three leading contenders succeed? And why did Lord Home (later Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerge as the unexpected choice of the party?

Macmillan’s first choice was Lord Hailsham (later Quintin Hogg), the darling of the Tory associations from his time as Party Chairman in the late 1950s. But Hailsham’s mistake was that he wanted the job too much. Almost immediately, he announced he would be renouncing his peerage (something that had just become possible with the Peerage Act of July 1963). ‘Q’ for ‘Quintin’ badges quickly appeared, and then by accident, Hailsham fed his baby daughter Kate in full view of the media. No-one today would bat an eyelid at a politician feeding a baby, but back then it was considered a bit ‘off’ (or should that read ‘orf’?)  It reaffirmed in grander circles of the Tory Party that Hailsham was too ebullient, too erratic to be Prime Minister.

Step forward the affable Chancellor, Reginald Maudling. ‘Reggie’ was a matey but indolent politician, a sort of latter-day version of Kenneth Clarke.  More to the point, like Clarke, Maudling was the candidate that the Labour Party most feared. Having secured the backing of his old friend Iain Macleod, all Maudling had to do was to deliver a barnstorming speech to conference delegates. As Maudling stood up, Macleod whispered in his ear, ‘Go on Reggie, this is your chance.’ The speech looked good on paper. Had it been delivered properly, it would have set the conference hall alight. Instead, Reggie could only muster a dull monotone. A few of Maulding’s supporters jumped to their feet, cheering their hero, but one by one, they returned to their seats, disconsolate. The Chancellor had blown his chances in full glare of the media. It was a mistake that David Davis would repeat at the Conservative Party conference in 2005 when once more, conference delegates were put to sleep by a Tory politician’s dull oratory.

Surely then, Rab Butler would succeed Macmillan? The bookmakers certainly thought so, having made the Deputy Prime Minister the 6-4 on favourite for the Tory crown. All Butler had to do was to rouse party delegates during the leader’s address on the Saturday morning. Enter Lord Home, the Foreign Secretary. Just as Butler was about to address delegates, Home delivered his bombshell: he had been approached about the possibility of becoming party leader. Whether Home intended to unsettle his rival is not known. Either way, Butler’s speech barely managed to surpass Maudling’s in its dullness.

But surely Lord Home didn’t gain the Tory leadership simply because his rivals faltered. Even after the Tory Conference, a specially commissioned poll by the Express still put Butler on 39.5%, Hailsham on 21.5%, Maudling on 11%, with Home in fourth place on 9.5%. True, Home’s speech on foreign affairs, delivered before Maulding, had been well received. But in reality, the Eton-educated Home was a virtual unknown amongst the public. In the eighteenth century, he would have made an ideal Prime Minister, but not in the more media-orientated world of 1963.

In fact, Home became Tory leader because by this stage Macmillan had recovered sufficiently from his illness to engage in a stitch-up in order to prevent Rab Butler from becoming leader. The Prime Minister therefore called upon senior figures in the party – the so called ‘magic circle – to take soundings amongst the Cabinet, MPs and the party at large. These results were manipulated in such a way as to portray Home to Her Majesty the Queen as the compromise candidate, the man who wouldn’t split the party. Faced with such a blatant stitch-up, Rab Butler bottled it, and refused to challenge Macmillan’s view.

What lessons can be drawn from this sorry episode?

One notable lesson is that when it comes to Tory party leadership contests, the favourite almost never wins. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher triumphed, despite Willie Whitelaw being the favourite to succeed Ted Heath. If we fast-forward to the dramatic events of November 1990, Michael Heseltine was the favourite. Conservative MPs didn’t opt for John Major because of his own merits, but because he was the ‘Stop Heseltine’ candidate. In 1997, Conservative MPs only chose the inexperienced William Hague because he wasn’t Kenneth Clarke. In 2001, the 14-1 outsider, Iain Duncan Smith had the advantage of not being Michael Portillo. And in 2005, David Davis was the favourite, not David Cameron.

So, if David Cameron were to fall under a bus tomorrow, who would be likely to succeed him? Surely not the current favourite, Theresa May? While Michael Gove still represents very good value at 7-1, history suggests that some lesser known figure will emerge to seize the Tory leadership. That’s why I’m having a small flutter on Justine Greening at 33-1.

Mark Stuart

You can also see video footage of the 1963 Conservative party conference. Note the newspaper headlines covering the leadership contest – there’s no mention of Lord Home. 

Hugh Gaitskell: what is the Labour leader’s legacy?

Hugh Gaitskell by Judy Cassab

Hugh Gaitskell by Judy Cassab

It’s now exactly fifty years since Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963, died of a mysterious illness.

The Labour Party tends to revere those leading lights that have been prematurely taken away from it. Since their respective deaths in 1963 and 1994, both Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith have now almost achieved sainthood. But, fifty years on, what is Gaitskell’s long-term legacy?

Probably Gaitskell’s most important contribution is ‘Butskellism’, a term coined in The Economist in 1956 by merging his name with that of Rab Butler, a leading Conservative. Gaitskell and Butler served as successive Chancellors of the Exchequer in the early 1950s, and both shared similar views on a ‘mixed economy’, a strong welfare state, and maintaining full employment. That post-war consensus would last, more or less until 1979 when Mrs Thatcher came to power.

Throughout his life, Gaitskell remained a committed social democrat. He led an ardent group of followers inside the Labour Party – people like Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – who eventually formed the breakaway SDP in 1981. In 1994, Tony Blair would take up many of the views of Gaitskell’s acolytes in a sort of ‘SDP Mark II’.

Indeed, Gaitskell shared with Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock a certain way of running the Labour Party: all three leaders tended to express their love for it by grabbing it by the scruff of the neck. Such a strident style of leadership is in marked contrast to a host of other Labour leaders – including Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Michael Foot and John Smith – who balanced competing forces, seeking compromise.

Gaitskell was a conviction politician, always prepared to fight for his political beliefs. His brave stand against Anthony Eden’s military intervention in Suez in 1956 because it lacked the support of the United Nations, marked him out early on as a man of principle.

Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gaitskell provoked two great debates – over nuclear disarmament and European integration – both of which showed that he was prepared to take a stand on the key issues of the day, even at the expense of making enemies from within his own party.

‘There are some of us’, he told delegates at the 1960 Labour Conference in Scarborough ‘who will fight, fight and fight again to save the Party we love.’ Gaitskell had the courage to make the pro-nuclear case at the height of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s influence. He lost the vote in 1960, but demonstrated true grit by reversing the decision the following year. Despite the Party’s ‘wobble’ over defence under Michael Foot in the early 1980s, the likelihood of the present Labour frontbench unilaterally renouncing Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is far-fetched. Labour MPs eventually became fed up of being on the ‘wrong’ side of the argument, and Gaitskell showed them the way.

However, Gaitskell parted company with many of his social democratic followers on the issue of Europe. He was wedded to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, famously telling the 1962 Labour Party Conference in Brighton that European integration would mean ‘the end of a thousand years of history’. Today, Labour is much more pro-European in outlook, although Ed Miliband’s advisers are trying to wrestle with the problem that the British people are far less keen on the European project than party activists. As Miliband contemplates whether or not to come out in favour of a referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, perhaps the modern day Labour Party would do well to heed Gaitskell’s words of warning.

Unfortunately, Gaitskell’s legacy was also as a loser. At the 1959 general election, Labour fought a highly professionalized campaign. Gaitskell appeared on television with Tony Benn and Woodrow Wyatt, pioneering the use of party political broadcasts. But, rather like Neil Kinnock, who also fought a media-based campaign in the 1987 general election, Gaitskell went down to a shattering landslide defeat at the hands of the Conservatives. Although he remained as Labour leader, his standing never fully recovered.

Probably the cruellest aspect of Gaitskell’s death in January 1963 is that it paved the way for Harold Wilson – a more ruthless, calculating and ultimately more successful politician – to assume the Labour leadership. Famously, Wilson went on to win four out of the five general elections he fought. Tragically, John Smith’s death in 1994 also paved the way for another more charismatic Labour leader to emerge, Tony Blair becoming the most successful Labour leader in history, winning three successive elections.

Both Gaitskell and Smith’s deaths therefore raise intriguing political ‘what ifs’. Political pundits are left endlessly to speculate whether, had Gaitskell lived, he would have beaten Macmillan in 1964, and had Smith lived, whether he would have defeated John Major in 1997.

The veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, a notable survivor from the Gaitskell era, divides politicians into signposts, who show the way, and weathercocks who are buffeted by events. Whether we agree with Gaitskell’s views or not, he was definitely a signpost. Fifty years on from his death, perhaps his lasting legacy is to encourage other politicians to lead from the front.

Mark Stuart is a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has written a number of political biographies, including John Smith: a Life.