MARGARET Thatcher has called for the Conservatives to scrap their leadership election rules so that Tory prime ministers are safe from challenge. The rules, she claims, were fashioned for opposition, not for government. In fact, they were introduced in 1975 to remove a leader who had outstayed his welcome. They were applied again in 1990 to remove Thatcher, and the votes cast then showed clearly that she had lost her authority. Without the leadership election rules, there would have been no way to remove her, nor would there have been a way of choosing a new leader.
The old method had yielded nothing but muddle and confusion. It was finally discredited 30 years ago this week. In October 1963, the Conservatives were preparing for their annual conference at Blackpool. Then, as now, they were unhappy with their leader. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had become, in the words of the editor of the Times, 'a national disaster'.
Labour, under Harold Wilson, was 12 per cent ahead in the polls. But Macmillan clung on. On 8 October, he asked the Cabinet to decide whether he should lead the party into the next general election. Only Enoch Powell thought he should go. That night, however, Macmillan was taken to hospital for an operation. Lord Home, the Foreign Secretary, secured a resignation letter from him and read it to a stunned party conference.
At that time, the Tories had no mechanism for choosing their leader, and no idea how to proceed. Earlier in 1963, Humphry Berkeley, then a Conservative MP, had suggested electing a leader. 'Humphry, surely you are not advocating one man, one vote,' Lord Aldington said. The reaction was as if, in Berkeley's words: 'I had suggested that the leader of the party should be elected by the entire adult population of the African continent.'
Macmillan advised the party to employ the 'customary processes of consultation'. But this was not very helpful since there were no such processes. There were four candidates: R A Butler, Reginald Maudling, Viscount Hailsham and Lord Home (the latter two could disclaim their titles under legislation passed earlier in the year).
Hailsham sought to enlist the party activists by telling a packed fringe meeting that he would renounce his title, but this had the opposite effect to that intended. The near-hysterical response served only to convince the party grandees that, in the words of one of their number, there were 'horses for courses, and Quintin was not the horse for this course'.
Butler was widely perceived as the favourite, and it has become part of political mythology that he was deprived of the premiership through a plot masterminded by the sick Macmillan. In June 1963, though, three months before Macmillan's resignation, Major John Morrison, chairman of the 1922 Committee, had told Butler, after consulting MPs, that 'the chaps won't have you'.
After his conversation with Butler, Morrison had also told Home that 'the demands of party unity might make it desirable, and even necessary, that the Foreign Secretary should become leader'. Home, far from being an unwilling candidate imposed on the party by Macmillan, was probably the most ambitious of the candidates, yet the most skilful at hiding it; but he was the natural choice for a party seeking to bind its wounds. Yet because there was no agreed procedure, the outcome was bound to lack legitimacy. The method used was that of 'guided democracy', much of the guidance coming from the Whips, who favoured Home.
When Reginald Bevins, the Postmaster-General, gave the Chief Whip, Martin Redmayne, his preferences - Maudling and Butler - there was a long pause. 'What about the peers - Alec and the other one?' Redmayne asked. 'Not at any bloody price,' Bevins replied. Later, he recalled: 'It was an unfortunate answer. All carefully recorded on Martin Redmayne's foolscap.'
The selection of Home seemed deliberately to flout the temper of the times, according to which new professional leadership was needed to reverse Britain's economic decline, a feeling skilfully tapped by Wilson. And the unseemly display of infighting, usually veiled, made it seem as if the Conservatives had, in the words of William Rees- Mogg, 'ceased to be gentlemen without becoming democrats'.
'Home rule' was an unsuccessful interregnum in Tory history. He was to lose the 1964 election, and he resigned the leadership the year after. By then, the Tories had decided to elect their leader, and Edward Heath, the only cabinet meritocrat to support Home in 1963, proved the beneficiary.
Home was the last of a dying breed. The four Tory leaders between 1951 and 1965 were the grandson of a duke, the younger son of a baronet, the son-in-law of a duke, and a 14th earl; three were old Etonians. Home's successors, however, were a builder's son, a grocer's daughter and the son of a circus performer; and, as Douglas Hurd discovered in 1990, it was a handicap to be an old Etonian in the post-Home Tory party.
The events of 1963 hold two lessons for Conservatives. The first is that the 'men in grey suits' could not remove a discredited leader. Commenting on the disintegration of the Macmillan regime, Enoch Powell declared: 'You lose the public, you lose the press, you lose the party in the House, but the men whose heads you can cut off before breakfast, you lose last.'
The second lesson is that the Conservatives normally prefer a consensual candidate to one seen as divisive. That was why Home was preferred to Butler and Hailsham, and why John Major was preferred to Michael Heseltine.
It is perhaps fortunate for his peace of mind that Major, unlike Macmillan, is not a student of history because, of the 12 Tory leaders who have preceded him this century, six (Balfour, Austen, Chamberlain, Home, Heath and Thatcher) were overthrown in revolts by their own followers. Three (Bonar Law, Eden and Macmillan) went unwillingly through illness, and one (Churchill) unwillingly through old age. Only two (Salisbury and Baldwin) went voluntarily. In the 20th century, disloyalty, it seems, has become the Conservative Party's secret weapon.
The author is Reader in Government at Oxford University and a Fellow of Brasenose College.
In Vernon Bogdanor's commentary on Monday, an error was introduced into a list of six former Tory leaders overthrown by their own followers. The list should have read: Balfour, Austen Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain, Home, Heath and Thatcher.Reuse content