Fifty years of Tory leadership contests

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

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 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 as Tory leader after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the first Conservative leadership contest to be held amongst MPs.

1965

Heath 65

Edward Heath beats the favourite, former Chancellor, Reginald Maudling to win the leadership. Enoch Powell comes third.

The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. ‘Reggie’ Maudling ultimately fell foul of his business connections and resigned as Home Secretary. Powell with his inflammatory 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) proved ill-suited to frontbench politics.

1975

Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher

Former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposes Heath (now back in Opposition) and proceeds to beat Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Hugh Fraser and John Peyton for the top job. Heath descends 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.

1989

Margaret Thatcher resigns, Guardian front page 23 November 1990

Unknown pro-European back-bencher 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?

1990

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 9:  British Prime Minister John Major (L)  and  his deputy  Michael Heseltine answer questions at the morning election conference, 09 April in London,  as sleaze promised to dominate the 22 days left to May 1 elections after local party bosses thumbed their noses at the national leadership and retained   MP Neil Hamilton accused of taking bribes. Mr Major said that Mr Hamilton had the full support of the Conservative Party and hoped he would return to the House of Commons to carry out his work,    and he called on the voters of Tatton to stand behind    Hamilton and elect him as their MP at       elections.  (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images)

In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by her former defence secretary, Michael Heseltine. She technically wins but not by a wide enough margin and reluctantly resigns. Little-known Chancellor John Major beats Heseltine and Foreign Secretary 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 – a woman with no interests outside politics – became a perpetual thorn in Major’s side and the scars of the contest took many years to heal.

1995

John Major PM talking to journalists in Downing Street before leaving for Waterloo.

By now perpetually embattled 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 the own private target set by himself below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest, as might have been expected otherwise.

The right choice?:  It seems doubtful anyone could have saved the Tories from electoral disaster in 1997 by that stage.

1997

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Little-known 36-year old former Welsh secretary William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after the party’s devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously loses his seat, preventing him from participating in the contest.

The right choice?: Probably not. Hague proved an inexperienced and inadequate leader. Voters would have preferred the more effective and experienced Ken Clarke.

2001

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 was deposed in favour of an un-elected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better. Clarke’s election as Tory leader might also have prevented UK involvement in the Iraq War after 2003.

2005

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.

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The nearly men: Ken Clarke

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Some reacted with alarm to the news that Ken Clarke had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1993. Some were simply he worried that he wasn’t up to it. He had been a bad gaffe-prone Health Secretary and little better in Education. Others were simply worried about Clarke’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power. Had John Major, like Sir Anthony Eden promoting Macmillan in 1955, unwittingly appointed his successor?

In fact, neither group need have worried. Ken Clarke (he had previously been Kenneth but like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Blair, this was seen as too posh) was a successful Chancellor as he had been a successful Home Secretary in the year before 1993. It is true, the Tories never regained their reputation for economic competence under him, but this was hardly his fault. The shambles of Black Wednesday in 1992 during which interest rates rose fifteen times in one day put paid to that. Major was very lucky to survive.

Why then didn’t Clarke become Tory leader after the 1997? His two main rivals had disappeared after all, young Michael Portillo losing his seat in the electoral deluge, old Michael Heseltine declared unfit after an angina attack soon after. Ken Clarke was surely the obvious choice, the most popular, experienced and credible candidate?

The simple answer is that the Tories had been driven to eccentric extremes by their 1997 defeat and were prepared to follow whatever their elderly former leader Lady Thatcher said. And she endorsed the former Welsh Secretary, William Hague.

William Hague might well make a good Prime Minister today. But he was an appalling choice in 1997, only 36, little known to the public, gaffe-prone and looking and sounding weird. He never shook off the fallout from the blunder of wearing his baseball hat at the Notting Hill Carnival (a desperate attempt to look cool) or the memory of his teenage appearance at the Tory Party Conference in the 1970s. His error in letting through Blair’s Lords reform measures and his over-enthusiastic endorsement of Lord Archer as London’s 2000 mayoral candidate, all testified to his poor judgement. He was redeemed slightly by strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even this merely strengthened the impression that he was a political geek. Little wonder the Tories made only one net gain in 2001, a disastrous follow up to their worst election defeat of the 20th century.

Hague, had however, been anti-European and endorsed by Lady Thatcher. Even more crazily, this was enough to push Tories towards Iain Duncan Smith instead of Clarke in 2001. This proved an even more eccentric choice than Hague had been. IDS totally lacked the charm of his predecessor and was turned out in favour of a temporary caretaker leader, Michael Howard in 2003.

In their desperation for unity, the Tories had appointed Howard without an election, something they would vilify Labour for with Gordon Brown just two years later. Howard had also been a disaster as Home Secretary in government and had come last in the 1997 leadership contest in which Hague had beaten Clarke. He did perform more effectively in 2005, reducing Blair’s majority to a still substantial 66.

Determined not to see his irritable colleague David Davis succeed, Howard postponed his resignation as leader until later in 2005. Clarke on his third run as leader seemed to stand a good chance at first but was ultimately harmed by revelations of his business links with British tobacco. He was at any rate, now too old. Tories probably made the right choice in selecting David Cameron, still not yet forty in 2005 and only an MP for four years.

Today, old Ken Clarke remains in government. In earlier, less youth-fixated times (all three party leaders are now in their forties), he might still stand a chance.

His misfortune was to be in the ascent during a decade when the Tories had rarely been more eccentric.

Other nearly men…

RA  (“RAB”) Butler:  The founder of the famous Butler Education Act. Why not PM?: Betrayed by colleague Harold Macmillan in both 1957 and again in 1963.

Tony Benn: Long standing Labour MP and diarist. Why not PM? Went ultra-left wing after 1973 and was probably too unpalatable even for 1970s/1980s Labour after that. Might have led Labour had he not lost his seat in 1983. Kinnock won instead.

Neil Kinnock: The longest serving Opposition leader since World War II (1983-1992). Why never PM? Came close in 1992, but the public and especially the press never warmed to him. Arguably saved Labour from destruction though.

David Davis: Briefly the front runner in the 2005 Tory leadership contest but notoriously moody. Cameron triumphed when Davis’s electoral address fell flat.

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The rise and fall of Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo

ImageAs Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right but also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…

With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of him in his school locker. This only changed when hr began experimenting with conservatism at university.

By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.

Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank”. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major in an off the record moment complained he could not sack. There seemed to be no stopping him.

That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably installed as a precaution if Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997 as was universally expected and then stand for leader then?

Few expected the Tories to lose as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority won by any party since the war.

Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven his political nemesis.

The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won the leadership. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.

Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?

But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.

Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Tony Blair was born in the same month as Portillo and ultimately proved his nemesis. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.

Alternatively, had Labour won by less in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.

Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was sincere and not a tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.

Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.

But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.

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