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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. 

Published inConservativesPolitical history

One Comment

  1. Interesting that May and Gove featured again in the actual 2016 contest!

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