It is easy to forget amidst all the current Labour leadership hoo-hah, that it is fifty years this month since the very first Conservative leadership contest. Generally more unpredictable than their Labour equivalents, let’s recall this and every such contest since…
1963: Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan falsely believing himself to be dying of cancer resigns on the eve of the party conference. The resulting chaos convinces most that the “magic circle” process of consultation needs to be replaced by an election of MPs. Macmillan’s successor Alec Douglas Home resigns after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the coming contest.
Edward Heath beats the favourite Reginald Maudling to win the leadership. Enoch Powell comes third.
The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. Maudling fell foul of his business connections. Powell with his inflammatory Rivers of Blood speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) was ill suited to front bench politics.
Former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposes Heath (now back in Opposition) and proceeds to beat Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Hugh Fras and John Peyton for the top job. Heath goes into “the incredible sulk” for the next thirty years.
The right choice?: Undoubtedly. Whatever else she may have been, Thatcher was a boon to the Tory party, ultimately delivering them three landslide election victories. This wasn’t obvious in 1975, however, and Heath’s popularity with the public continued to outstrip hers until the early Eighties.
Unknown backbencher Sir Anthony Meyer (dubbed “Sir Nobody” by the press) mounts a “stalking horse” challenge to Prime Minister Thatcher’s leadership. He loses but the number of abstentions is high, a fact largely overlooked at the time.
The right choice?: Could the brutality of Thatcher’s departure have been averted had she gone a year earlier? Who knows?
In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by former defence secretary Michael Heseltine. She wins but not by enough and resigns. Little known John Major beats Heseltine and Douglas “too posh” Hurd in the second round.
The right choice?: In the short run, yes. Major replacing Thatcher saved the Tories from certain defeat in 1992. In the long run? Perhaps not. Thatcher became a perpetual thorn in Major’s side and the scars of the contest took many years to heal.
Troubled PM Major pre-empts ongoing leadership controversy by resigning as leader and inviting people to “put up or shut up” and challenge him. He defeats former Welsh secretary John Redwood but only narrowly beats his own private target below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest.
The right choice?: It seems doubtful anyone could have saved the Tories from electoral disaster in 1997 by that stage.
Little known 36 year old William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after their devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously lost his seat.
The right choice?: Probably not. Hague proved an inexperienced and inadequate leader. Voters would have preferred the more effective and experienced Ken Clarke.
Iain Duncan Smith beats Clarke in a ballot of party members. Michaels Portillo (now back in parliament) and Ancram all lost out early on in a ballot of MPs as did David Davis.
The right choice?: Definitely not. IDS was a disaster as leader and deposed in favour of an unelected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better.
In the year of Ted Heath’s death, David Cameron beats David Davis for the leadership. Liam Fox and an ageing Clarke lose out early on.
The right choice?: Probably, yes. Cameron finally delivered victory this year. their smallest post-war majority, yes. But a win is a win.