Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian
On Saturday 19th October 1963 a member of the House of Lords became Prime Minister for the last time in British history. On the previous day the Queen had invited the Earl of Home to see if he could form a new government. The following morning, as martial music wafted through the Palace windows, he was able to tell her that he had succeeded, and kissed hands on his appointment. Taking advantage of a procedure that had just been established, he swiftly disclaimed his title and secured a seat in the Commons as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. It is inconceivable that the premiership will ever be bestowed again in this manner – or that anything like the extraordinary leadership crisis that preceded it should occur again.
Only twelve days earlier, a change at No 10 had been firmly ruled out. After months of anguished indecision following the humiliations of the Profumo scandal, the formidable incumbent, Harold Macmillan, made up his mind to remain in office until the next general election which had to be held within the next twelve months. But within hours of resolving the issue, he fell victim to severe prostate trouble which required an immediate operation. There was no sign of cancer, and his doctors assured him that he would make a swift and complete recovery. Nevertheless he immediately decided to resign. His Press Secretary, Harold Evans, noted in his diary a few days later, “Providence took a hand”. Evans recorded that Maurice Macmillan hailed the development as “an opportunity for his father to retire with honour. Why should he go on…The Tory Party gave nothing, and the backbenchers had behaved abominably—sentiments I could but echo”.
Macmillan reversed his decision to stay on 8 October just as the constituency representatives (never at that time described as delegates) were assembling in Blackpool for the annual Party Conference. Alec Home, his successful and respected Foreign Secretary, happened to be that year’s President of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, the UK-wide body responsible for organising the Conference. He arrived in Blackpool on the tenth, and in the late afternoon read a letter of resignation from Macmillan — the first and last such communication from a leader in the Party’s history — to a tense, packed audience in the Winter Gardens. “It will not be possible for me,” Macmillan told them, “ to carry the physical burden of leading the Party at the next general election.”
Sympathy for Macmillan was quickly displaced by the delights of incessant discussion about the respective merits and weaknesses of the candidates who wanted to succeed him. It was as if an American nominating convention had been transposed to Blackpool. William Rees-Mogg wrote at the end of the week that the Tories had “ceased to be gentlemen”.
The leading contenders were Rab Butler, the architect of post-war Tory policy; Reggie Maudling, then a young, brilliant Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Lord Hailsham, who had for years been the Conference darling. In the evening of the tenth, Hailsham tried to steal a march on his rivals by announcing at the end of an arid lecture to the Conservative Political Centre that he intended to cast off his title and become Quintin Hogg once again, ready to take the Party to fresh triumphs. Pandemonium ensued. An immense stock of “ Q” (for Quintin) badges had been supplied by Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, an ex-MP widely regarded as the rudest man in England. Every lapel within reach was adorned, including Rab Butler’s. A badge even found its way on to the Lord Chancellor’s generous posterior. Hailsham subsequently made matters even worse at what was meant to be a carefully stage-managed Conference by parading in front of the cameras with his infant daughter, whom he fed from her bottle — a task which many Tories in 1963 believed should be performed in private by a nanny. “ Never discount the baby food,” Ted Heath said, “as a factor in disqualifying Hailsham.”
Neither Butler nor Maudling prospered in Blackpool. Their Conference speeches drew only criticisms. On the new (and to many Tories deeply shocking) satirical TV programme, That Was The Week That Was, Bernard Levin was scathing about Maudling’s effort: “ if not the dullest speech in history, it would do until the dullest was made”. Alec Home, however, had a great success with a speech on foreign affairs on the eleventh which had as its centrepiece the Government’s only recent achievement, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The BBC commented that “in another day of hectic lobbying here in Blackpool he’s now emerged as the man who may be drafted into the premiership to break the deadlock” between the leading candidates.
Back in London after the conference, Home advanced from reluctant candidate to Prime Minister in days. Between the 15th and the 17th, the views of the Cabinet, MPs, peers and the Party outside Parliament were canvassed more thoroughly than during any previous leadership contest. At Westminster a complex procedure was adopted. MPs were asked for their second choices as well as their first, and to give the names of those candidates unacceptable to them. This created immense scope for misunderstanding and controversy. In a famous article in The Spectator in January 1964, Iain Macleod (who harboured strong leadership ambitions of his own) accused Macmillan and a “magic circle” of old Etonians of manipulating the whole process to ensure that Home, not Butler, secured the prize. The process of modernising the Party would be left in ruins. Though the article was full of errors, it proved immensely damaging. Home always felt that it was the most important factor in denying the Conservatives victory at the closely fought election the following year.
The highly controversial consultations carried out half a century ago have been scrutinised in detail by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who is always keen to remind me that he is no admirer of the Party. He concluded that “there is no evidence that the result seriously misrepresented Conservative opinion”. It seemed clear, he added, that Home “had at least a narrow plurality of votes amongst MPs as their first choice, gaining more support when later preferences were taken into account; and that he was the first choice of the Cabinet”. Constituency opinion, however, favoured Hailsham or Butler.
Dissent was openly expressed on the 19th when Home became Prime Minister. Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell refused posts in his Cabinet after failing to persuade Butler to join them and others in a wide revolt that would have forced Home to report failure, not success, to the Queen. For his part Home accepted that “any election after my election by the same methods would never carry any public confidence”. 19 October 1963 not only marked the start of a new premiership; it was also the day that a democratic procedure for choosing the Conservative leader became inevitable, though the Party hierarchy, then as now, balked at the proposal that all members should be given an equal vote.
Read more about the 1963 leadership crisis in the new issue of the Conservative History Journal published by the Conservative History Group and available through www.conservativehistory.org.uk. Much of the information included here comes from the brilliant biographies of Macmillan and Home by D.R. Thorpe.