Sir Alec bumbles in last months of power

CABINET SECRETS OF 1964: Stephen Ward and Stephen Castle review files n ow in the public domain

As Sir Alec Douglas-Home's government clung to office through the first nine months of 1964, it showed it had lost its touch as much by its handling of trivial as of grave matters.

Sir Alec, who had renounced his title as the 14th Earl of Home to become Prime Minister, had an idea for dealing with the problem of mods and rockers: to treat them like poachers.

On 29 May, the Cabinet home affairs committee considered whether the Government could toughen the law "to deal with the possibility of further outbreaks of teenage hooliganism at seaside resorts during the summer". On his copy of the minutes Sir Alec scrawled: "Perhaps the Home Secretary knows that under Scottish law the car in which a man poaches can be confiscated."

The Government, still sensitive about the Profumo affair in 1963, was thrown into a panic by an unsubstantiated rumour about Lord Boothby, a Conservative who had left the Commons several years before. Two newspaper articles in July, linking an unnamed gangster and an unnamed peer (recognised by Westminster insiders as Boothby and Ronald Kray) with allegations of parties in Brighton and homosexuality, led to a series of high level meetings.

While Scotland Yard denied the story, some senior Tories feared a Labour Party conspiracy with the Sunday Mirror to discredit the Government. No one thought to ask Lord Boothby, and only as the panic grew into its second week, did the peer return from a holiday abroad, to present the Government with a detailed denial of every aspect of the story. He had met Ronald Kray, but only briefly thinking he was a legitimate businessman. He had been photographed with him, but only because Kray had said he was a fan, and asked to be photographed with him.

The Sunday Mirror quickly apologised, and paid Boothby £40,000 in libel damages.

Papers from 1963 also shed new light on the deep scars left on the party by the leadership contest forced by Harold Mac-millan's severe illness that autumn. A memo sets out a fulsome recommendation of Lord Home, commending his class credentials, but mostshocking is the language of a withering dismissal of Lord Hailsham, who only days before had been his first choice to take over as prime minister.

The memo says unnamed Cabinet colleagues regarded Lord Hailsham as "impulsive, even arrogant ... he is in the habit of talking a great deal, and sometimes without much reflection", and possesses a "boyish lack of manners".

Mr Macmillan's successor was selected, like all his predecessors, by a "magic circle" who took soundings in the party.

Yet, significantly, before taking soundings, Mr Macmillan argued that "the Cabinet would be universally for Lord Home, obviously, for he is a popular, delightful man and would make an effective chief ... Lord Home is clearly a man who represents the old governing class at its best ... had he been of another generation he would have been of the Grenadiers [Macmillan's regiment] and the 1914 heroes". In the event, two ministers refused to serve under Sir Alec: Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell.

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