Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first leadership election in the history of the Conservative Party; while preceding events can perhaps be called ‘contests’, particularly the public circus that took place in October 1963, none were elections.

The events of 1963, and the narrow loss of the 1964 election, encouraged a spirit of organisational reform among the Tories and, early in 1965, it was decided that in future there would be a secret ballot among the party’s MPs, and that the winner would require an overall majority and a 15 per cent lead over the nearest competitor in the final ballot. The new rules were drawn up by the mercurial Humphry Berkeley, the Conservative MP for Lancaster between 1959 and 1966, who was also notable for his work on homosexual law reform and for switching parties on a regular basis (to Labour in 1970, to the SDP in 1981 and back to Labour in 1988).

The first leadership election arrived quite suddenly in July 1965; Harold Wilson, the then Labour Prime Minister, had ruled out holding a general election in the second half of 1965 and the Conservatives started to ponder the party leadership. Sir Alec Douglas-Home had become leader and Prime Minister in October 1963 (and was elected as an MP in November).

However, despite his respectable result in the 1964 election, Sir Alec was not popular with the public and compounded the party’s old-fashioned image. Supporters of the abrasive Shadow Chancellor, Edward Heath, had started to push for a change in leadership, and there were murmurs in the press. On 18 July, Sir Alec read William Rees-Mogg’s column in the Sunday Times calling for him to stand down after his ‘captain’s innings’ and found the argument convincing enough to do just that a few days later. Rees-Mogg himself was, in later life, a bit embarrassed by the impact of an article he felt in retrospect was ‘patronising… irritating to read’, but it remains as a rare example of the direct political influence of a single newspaper column.

Three candidates fought the election: the heir apparent was Reginald Maudling, the Shadow Foreign Secretary and former Chancellor. His main challenger was Heath, and there was also the quixotic presence of Enoch Powell, arguing for classical economics. Maudling was the David Miliband of the 1965 leadership election; he seemed to have an air of entitlement about him and to expect the party’s grandees, his colleagues and the traditionalists who regretted the resignation of Douglas-Home, to rally round without much effort on his part.

Maudling was the voters’ choice by a clear margin, with 44 per cent support compared to 28 per cent for Heath and three per cent for Powell; among Conservative voters he did even better. The electorate had a thoroughly positive view of his personal qualities, with big polling leads on being ‘in touch with ordinary people’ and ‘progressive and up to date’ – the only desirable characteristic on which Heath led was ‘toughness’ by an unimpressive 30-29 margin. Heath was grumpy when he read these results: ‘these polls are certainly bloody. I really don’t believe anyone thinks I have less energy than Reggie’, he complained to his campaign manager, Peter Walker.

There was very little between Reggie and Ted in terms of policy, although Powell stood clearly to the right of both of them. Maudling was relatively cool on Europe, while Heath had a burning determination to see Britain join – though the contrast was not emphasised by either campaign. Maudling was also a little less free-market and more interventionist than Heath, and less keen on ‘modernisation’ measures like decimalisation and a Channel tunnel.

The decision was much more about personal qualities. The decisive argument for Heath was made, with exquisite irony, by Keith Joseph in convincing Margaret Thatcher to switch allegiance from Maudling to Heath: ‘Ted has a passion to get Britain right’. Heath embodied a combative, no-nonsense approach to politics which contrasted with Maudling’s easy-going nature. To the Tories of 1965, Heath was the man who could take the fight to Harold Wilson and reclaim modernisation and progress for the Tories, while the risk was that Maudling would not put in enough energy to the fight and would agree with Wilson too much of the time.

The attitude of both men to campaigning for the leadership illustrated these facets of their characters. Heath was practical and organised, gathering a core team who, like him, had experience as whips in counting and delivering votes. Maudling’s campaign was amateurish: one of his lieutenants, Philip Goodhart, recalled it as ‘the worst organised leadership campaign in Conservative history: a total shambles’. One of Maudling’s enthusiastic supporters was Henry Kerby, the MP for Arundel and Shoreham, whose canvassing method involved approaching chaps in the toilets and calling Heath a saboteur who stabbed the party in the back.

A lecture from Kerby on the subject of loyalty, we now know, was an exercise in chutzpah. He played an interesting, shadowy role during the Cold War – as a Russian speaker, he interpreted for Bulganin and Khrushchev and had rather close relations with the Soviet leadership. Although he was suspected of being a Soviet agent, this was never proved, but what was established was that he reported back Conservative gossip to MI5 on a regular basis until he was dropped in 1966. Thereupon, the rustle of cloaks and daggers being irresistible, he started passing on political gossip and intelligence to Harold Wilson.

Maudling was also labouring under the disadvantage of having been one of the most prominent figures in the previous Conservative government, and of being constantly blamed by the Labour government for the problems faced by the British economy. He was – unfairly, but the charges stuck in the political and public mind – associated with economic irresponsibility in the form of a surge in public spending and a boom that was sucking in imports and destabilising the balance of payments. The Governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cromer, was – outrageously – briefing against Maudling among newspaper proprietors and in the City, saying that if he won it would be bad for the pound.

Even given the opposition of most of the press and the City, and the efficiency of Heath’s campaign machine, Maudling was expected to win. The result of the election on 27 July came as a shock to most observers. Heath’s superior organisation and reputation for toughness delivered a 12-vote overall majority (Heath 150, Maudling 133, Powell 15). The leading candidates had agreed before the election that there would be no second round if anyone received an overall majority, so Maudling stood down and Heath became leader.

‘Well, it’s a world full of surprises’, Reggie noted: a similar observation was made in similar circumstances by Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Having lost a personal popularity contest – despite being nearly impossible to dislike, a claim nobody has ever made for Ted Heath – Reggie felt the blow very deeply, lingering morose and alone in the Commons Smoking Room for the rest of the day. He was never really the same again, and he descended into some dark places personally and ethically in the years that followed.

Despite his victory among MPs, and popularity with the activists, the Conservatives did not take Heath to their hearts during the years that followed. His poor personal ratings, even when the Tories were miles ahead in voting intention and winning nearly every by-election in 1967-69, were a source of great unease. Harold Wilson bested him most of the time in Parliament and secured a big Labour win in the 1966 election; Heath sometimes seemed flat-footed by comparison, and Maudling’s lazy cunning might have been more effective. Maudling might well have been a good Prime Minister, with his personal flaws kept in check by responsibility and a strong personal staff, and his ability to create consensus could have moderated the conflicts of the 1970s.

But Heath confounded his critics by leading the Conservatives to a surprise victory in the June 1970 general election – the only time since 1880 that a clear majority for one party has been replaced by a clear majority for another without a period of minority government or coalition in between. Perhaps, as even many people who had supported Maudling in 1965 later concluded, the party had got the choice right after all. Even Reggie himself, in his 1978 Memoirs, claimed to think so; this view was influenced by close political convergence between the two in 1970-75, when Heath adopted Maudling’s economics and industrial relations policy and Maudling adopted Heath’s Europeanism and modernism.

But the 1965 election did set a pattern: ever since, when offered a choice, the Conservatives have gone with the less familiar face among the main candidates – only in 2003, when the process was short-circuited, and in 1995 when the Prime Minister challenged his opponents to put up or shut up, has the decision gone to the established option. Labour’s record is more mixed, but certainly in 2010, 1994 and 1983 it has gone for the new over the old. We shall see what September brings for Labour, and what the more shadowy concept of ‘some time before 2020’ brings for the Tories.