Boris Johnson is in the midst of the bleakest period of his premiership, but he can at least nibble on a crumb of comfort from history. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Tory party is not at all ruthless in dispatching their prime ministers when they have fallen out of favour with voters, or appear to have passed their sell by dates. If Boris is on his way out, he might still be able to look forward to one of the very long goodbyes experienced by his Conservative predecessors in No. 10, thanks to the marked reluctance of Tory MPs to wield the fatal knife.
Let’s start with Johnson’s hero, biographical subject, and the man he is said to have modelled his political career upon: Winston Churchill. After the electorate had brutally dismissed the wartime leader and handed Labour a massive landslide victory in the 1945 General Election, many thought that Churchill – 70 years old and in declining health – would retire to sunnier climes and spend the evening of his life writing books and painting pictures. Not a bit of it.
While in opposition, with the aid of a team of young historians he completed his Nobel prizewinning ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’, and daubed his French Riviera landscapes on his frequent foreign holidays. Crucially, however, he also remained the leader of his party. None of his potential successors – particularly his loyal and long-suffering lieutenant Anthony Eden – wished to incur the odium of politically assassinating such a giant icon of freedom and democracy.
As a result, when the Attlee government ran out of road and the nation wearied of post-war austerity and rationing, the political pendulum swung back and it was Churchill who returned to Downing Street in 1951. Although suffering a major stroke – carefully concealed from the public – and evidently bored with humdrum peacetime governance, Churchill clung to office until his 80th year in 1955 before reluctantly and belatedly – but voluntarily – handing over to Eden.
Like Boris Johnson in 2019, Eden immediately went to the country and secured a convincing election victory to give his premiership a personal mandate and seal of popular acclaim. But, as with Boris and the Covid pandemic that followed his 2019 win, in 1956 Eden was quickly engulfed by a crisis: Suez. It was so severe that it tested his leadership to destruction. Yet even after British troops withdrew from the canal zone in an unprecedented national humiliation that spelled the end of Empire, it was Eden’s own failing health rather than a Tory revolt that caused him to resign the following year.
In those dim and distant days there was no hint of democracy in the way that the Tories deposed and chose their leaders. Party members and even MPs were excluded from a murky process in which leaders ‘emerged’ after consultation with the Cabinet and a handful of Tory grandees. The choice in 1957 was between ‘Rab’ Butler, an able administrator, but tainted by his past as a ‘Man of Munich’ appeaser; and Harold Macmillan, Eden’s sly Chancellor, who had stabbed his boss in the back by first encouraging the Suez adventure and then pulling the financial plug on it. Lord Salisbury canvassed the Cabinet with the simple question: ‘Wab or Hawold?’ and the majority plumped for ‘Hawold’.
MacMillan enjoyed a few golden years of ‘you’ve never had it so good’ prosperity and approval. He handily won an election in 1959, before a series of sex and spy scandals and popular ennui with ‘ 13 years of Tory misrule’ signalled that the times they were a-changing. Once again, however, the Tory party and its MPs may have been restive but did nothing beyond grumbling to defenestrate their ageing PM. It was ‘Supermac’ himself who fell on his sword and quit after surgery for a prostate problem that was misdiagnosed as cancer. MacMillan regretted his hasty decision to resign for the rest of his long life.
The PM’s illness coincided with the fractious 1963 Tory party conference in Blackpool, with rival candidates for the premiership, Rab Butler (again) and Lord Hailsham (Quentin Hogg) openly jockeying for the succession. From his hospital sickbed in London, MacMillan loftily ignored both. He advised the Queen to send for his foreign secretary and fellow Etonian, Lord Home. It was the last hurrah for the feudal system of choosing Tory leaders, and it caused a chorus of disapproval, including a devastating insider expose in The Spectator by the magazine's new editor, Iain Macleod. After Home relinquished his 14th earldom and was elected to parliament as plain Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Tories agreed to let their MPs vote for their future leaders.
Sir Alec lasted for just a year before narrowly losing the 1964 General Election to Harold Wilson’s Labour party. Like the gent that he was, Douglas-Home then gracefully and voluntarily surrendered the party leadership, and the Tory MPs elected Edward Heath. He was the first Conservative chief since the Old Harrovian Churchill not to have been educated at Eton. Heath lost the 1966 election, but was forgiven and unexpectedly won in 1970. He succeeded where MacMillan had failed in taking Britain into the ‘Common Market’ – forerunner of the EU.
However, deepening industrial strife and clashes with the miners brought Heath’s government to a crisis in February 1974. After plunging the nation into a winter darkness of power cuts and a three day working week, he lost the election he had called on the theme of ‘who runs Britain?’ – only to be told by the voters: ‘Not you matey!’ True to form, Tory MPs shrank from deposing their manifestly inept and unpopular leader, even after he lost a second election in October of the same year.
It took the courage of Margaret Thatcher, who threw her handbag into the ring to challenge Heath in 1975, before the Tories were finally bamboozled – in a black arts campaign run by former spook Airey Neave – into dislodging the immovable Heath and installing their first woman leader. Britain’s industrial woes had persisted under Labour, and Thatcher was elected in 1979 after the strife-torn ‘winter of discontent’ on a pledge to sort out the striking Trade Unions, which, to the consternation of the Heathite Tory ‘wets’, she duly did.
During her decade at the top Thatcher was such a dominant figure both nationally and on the world stage that dethroning her seemed akin to regicide. But behind the scenes the wets had never been reconciled to her abrasive personality, her gender, or her free market ideology. They bided their time and awaited their chance. After ten years and despite three election wins, the increasing megalomania of the ‘Leaderene’, her support for the hated Poll Tax, and her opposition to European federalism combined to give them their opportunity and the knives finally went in.
Thatcher’s successor, the hapless John Major, then emulated Heath in unexpectedly winning an election in 1992. But Black Wednesday – the doomed bid to keep the pound in the EMS, precursor of the euro – lay just around the next U-bend. From then on, Major's administration rapidly descended into the brown stuff. Economic chaos, a surfeit of absurd sex scandals involving Tory MPs, and ever widening divisions over Europe made Major a despised figure of fun and finally wrecked his floundering and divided government in 1997. But yet again it was the voters at an election, not Tory MPs, who dismissed a failed PM – Major having easily seen off an internal challenge from John Redwood even as his party sank beneath the waves of national derision.
The early noughties and three election wins belonged to Tony Blair’s triumphant New Labour. The Tories swiftly ran through a trio of electorally unappealing leaders – Hague, IDS, and Howard – who were unable to land a glove on Blair, before hitting on an ‘heir to Blair’ in the smooth shape of another Old Etonian, David Cameron. By then, in a nod to democracy, the Tories had graciously included their party members in leadership elections and ‘call me Dave’ oiled his way into their affections – and the party leadership.
Dave’s upper crust charms and Gordon Brown’s unpopularity won over enough voters for the Tories to scrape back into power in 2010, albeit in coalition with Westminster School's Nick Clegg’s Lib Dem. It was a perfect fusion of the arrogant, condescending, and progressive ethos that the top public schools seem to instil into their products with their morning milk. Having stymied the SNP by winning the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, Dave airily assumed he could pull the same stunt twice by promising a referendum on Brexit. In doing so, he hoped to bury the divisive Europe issue for good, and end the rising threat to the Tories from Nigel Farage’s Ukip.
We all know what happened next. In the frantic Tory bloodletting that followed the referendum, the two top Tory Brexiteers, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, eliminated each other in a political suicide pact, leaving Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom still standing.
Tory MPs in their questionable wisdom then proceeded to elect a charisma free leader who had inexplicably risen without trace after accidentally walking through the door marked ‘politics’ in her school’s careers advice office. The next three years were an embarrassing stasis in which May struggled and failed to get her various Brino (Brexit in name only) proposals through a paralysed parliament in which she had lost her Tory majority by calling and failing to decisively win an unnecessary election in 2017.
Even then, despite her obviously catastrophic leadership, the ever-forgiving Tories failed to put May out of her – and their, and our – misery until Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party reduced them to a pathetic nine per cent of the vote in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. Only then, when political extinction was staring them in the face, did the fabled men in grey suits call on Mrs May to suggest that her time was up. The election of Boris Johnson as a vote-winning leader and then PM promising to ‘get Brexit done’ followed, and two years ago he delivered it. But almost nothing has gone right for the Tories since.
So, of the ten post-war Tory prime ministers, thus far only two – Thatcher and May – have been forced from office against their wills while still in power by their own Conservative parliamentary colleagues. And, by coincidence or chauvinism, those two have been their only women leaders, ousted by their overwhelmingly male colleagues. The rest have all resigned after losing elections or a referendum, or through ill health.
The truth is that far from the ruthless pack of power-hungry hyenas ready to turn and rend their PMs to pieces portrayed by the media, Tory MPs are more like a flock of timid sheep, willing to wound but afraid to strike. They are, to use a Thatcherite word, too ‘frit’ to go in for the kill however dire the situation. However manifold Boris’s misdeeds may be, they prefer to hang on to nurse for fear of finding something or someone worse. So far.