Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
11 June 2001

Fated always to come second?

Everyone sees Brown and Portillo as future party leaders. But history suggests they will fail

By Ian Aitken

Will Gordon Brown really make it as the next prime minister? And Michael Portillo as the next Tory leader? According to the bookies and most of the pundits, they are near-certainties.

But the joy of real-life politics is that events rarely match up to the accepted wisdom. Most of those regarded by their peers as certain candidates to become party leaders have a distressing record of failure. Even in the half-century since the Second World War, the list of unsuccessful leadership favourites is alarmingly long.

At the top of the list is Herbert Morrison, the much-admired home secretary in Churchill’s wartime coalition, who was regarded for years as the inevitable successor to Clement Attlee. Morrison himself never doubted his claim to the job, not least because his brand of municipal socialism formed the basis for the programme of the 1945 Labour government. For many honest folk, Morrison was the Labour Party.

But by the time Attlee finally decided to quit as party leader in 1955, Morrison was well past his prime. The long-running confrontation between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell was already in full swing, and the anti-Bevanite right feared that Morrison would not be able to beat Bevan. When they switched their support to Gaitskell, Morrison’s long career finally hit the buffers.

Then there was Rab Butler, perhaps the grandest of all the odds-on favourites who failed to land the job. He is credited with putting the Tory party back together again after its landslide defeat by Labour in 1945, by the simple expedient of making it accept the welfare state. But he saw the prize snatched from him twice, first by Harold Macmillan in 1957, and then – most galling of all – by the ludicrous figure of the 14th Earl of Home (later Sir Alec Douglas-Home). This second humiliation, in 1963, turned out to be the last time that a Tory leader was picked by the so-called “magic circle” of anonymous party grandees. Its central figure was the Marquis of Salisbury, aka “Bobbity”, who asked Cabinet ministers whom they wanted. No one had thought of Home. But Bobbity had, so Home got it.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Two other failed Tories were William Whitelaw, Ted Heath’s Mister Fixit, and Keith Joseph, the tortured guru who converted Margaret Thatcher to free-market economics. At the time of Heath’s fall, Whitelaw was actually the bookies’ favourite to succeed him, but simple regimental loyalty put paid to his chances. Wimpishly, Whitelaw refused to stand against his old boss in the first ballot of Tory MPs, although he would almost certainly have won. By the time he entered the fray on the second ballot – an arcane feature of the Tory rule book – a no-hoper called Thatcher had galloped so far ahead that she couldn’t be overhauled.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

Keith Joseph never got near enough to the starting tape to notch up serious odds at the bookies. But most of Heath’s many enemies, including Thatcher, regarded Joseph as their most likely champion after the 1974 general election defeat. Alas, the man whom Chris Patten dubbed “the mad monk” proceeded to talk himself out of the job with a series of madcap ideological speeches that even Thatcher thought barmy.

Both Joseph and Whitelaw subsequently confessed that they would probably have made disastrous prime ministers, so perhaps, in their heart of hearts, they really did not want the job. The same might even be true of Butler, who could easily have dished Salisbury by following the lead of Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell in refusing to serve under Home. As a disappointed Macleod later remarked: “We handed Rab a revolver, but he didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger.”

No such thing could be said of another lost leader. Boozy old George Brown, who saw himself as the natural successor to Hugh Gaitskell, never had much trouble pulling triggers. His problem was that the pistol was usually pointing in his own direction when it went off. Thus, when Gaitskell unexpectedly died in 1963, many mourning Gaitskellites were appalled by Brown’s vulgar desperation for the succession. Even some of his natural allies could not bring themselves to vote for a man who seemed unable to sniff a sherry cork without getting bottled. Holding their noses, they voted for Harold Wilson.

It may be unromantic, but that’s how the world works. Goodness knows exactly what would have happened if Butler had faced Wilson, or Brown had faced Home in 1964. But it would certainly have been very different, which rather puts paid to the po-faced idea that personalities do not matter in politics. The one sure lesson is that neither Gordon Brown nor Michael Portillo should start designing his Cabinet (or shadow cabinet) quite yet.