The Conservatives have descended into infighting over Europe, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone – they have been at each other’s throats many times before. The Tory expert Tim Bale provides a guide to the most acrimonious feuds, starting in 1945…
10) Winston Churchill v Lord (Fred) Woolton
You’ve probably never heard of Lord Woolton – of course you haven’t. And that’s just the way Winston hoped it would turn out. The two men started out on pretty good terms. After all, it was Churchill who appointed his wartime minister of food to the chairmanship of the Tory party in 1945.
It proved a shrewd appointment. Woolton increased the membership and raised a shedload of money, which helped Churchill win office again in 1951. But by that time, everyone who worked with either of them knew that they didn’t see eye to eye, although the tension tended to bubble rather than boil over. It was partly down to jealousy on both men’s parts, but also because Churchill’s enthusiasm for an electoral pact with the Liberal Party went far beyond what Woolton (and most of his colleagues and the Tory grass roots) thought was necessary or wise. The result? Churchill is mythologised and Woolton largely forgotten.
9) Anthony Eden v Winston Churchill
Remember how Gordon Brown kept nagging Tony Blair to stand down so he could take over, and how Blair kept stringing him along? The relationship between Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill followed a similar dynamic. Many Tories assumed that Churchill, after regaining the premiership in 1951, would promptly hand over to the man widely tipped as his successor. But Churchill clung on to office despite increasingly serious concerns about his health and, indeed, his fitness to govern.
Eventually, he bowed to the inevitable but let it be known to a few close associates that he feared Eden would make a hash of things. He was right. After Eden’s handsome victory at the 1955 election, it only took weeks for the new prime minister’s high-handed manner to grate on his cabinet colleagues, with the result that few were upset when, after the humiliation of Suez, he resigned on the grounds of ill health.
8) The Tory establishment v Rab Butler
If it’s tough at the top, it can be even tougher getting there – or not getting there. When Eden went, many expected Richard Austen Butler, familiarly known as Rab, to succeed him. They were wrong.
After consultations among the party – there was no such thing as a leadership contest back then – it was Harold Macmillan who “emerged” as Tory leader and therefore prime minister. Butler felt the slight deeply but continued to serve loyally.
When Macmillan, who had won an impressive victory at the 1959 general election, resigned in 1963 after the Profumo affair, it looked as if Butler would finally get his chance. But he was again denied it by the “customary processes” that (allegedly with Macmillan’s help) handed the leadership and the premiership to Alec Douglas-Home, who had to renounce his place in the House of Lords to claim his prize.
Not everyone was pleased, and two high-profile ministers pointedly refused to serve under him. Enoch Powell was one of them. The other (better known at the time) was Iain Macleod, who used his position as editor of the Spectator (think George Osborne but still in parliament) to write an exposé in which he claimed that an Old Etonian “magic circle” had manipulated the consultation process to block Butler in favour of one of their own.
7) Enoch Powell v Ted Heath
Powell was always seen as a bit of an oddity – albeit a rather brilliant one – by his colleagues. When the Tories held their first democratic leadership contest in 1965, he came third with the support of just 15 MPs, far behind the winner, Ted Heath, with 150.
His fellow MPs knew that Powell was becoming increasingly concerned about what he saw as the long-term downsides of mass immigration from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. But both the content and the tone of his “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968 came as an enormous shock. Ted Heath never forgave or, apparently, even spoke to Powell again. Yet Powell – a Thatcherite and a Eurosceptic avant la lettre – was, according to contemporary polling, one of the most popular politicians in the country. He then spent most of the next five years opposing Heath’s ultimately successful attempt to get Britain into Europe. In 1974, Powell quit the Commons and urged people to vote Labour.
6) Ted Heath v Margaret Thatcher
A true grudge match. Heath only appointed Thatcher to his shadow cabinet and then his cabinet because he felt obliged to give something to a woman, and she was by far the most talented available. She stuck loyally to her education brief during his 1970-74 government, although privately she thought his government was a disaster. After he lost both of the 1974 general elections, she had the temerity to challenge and then beat Heath for the leadership the following year.
He never forgave her, descending into what became known as “the long sulk”. She refused to offer him an olive branch or a way back into high office. They died unreconciled.
5) Margaret Thatcher v John Major
Thatcher, like Heath, bought into the myth of her own indispensability and was devastated when her parliamentary party decided in November 1990 that she had passed her sell-by date. Fearing that she might be succeeded by Michael Heseltine, she alighted on her chancellor, John Major, as the man most likely to stop Hezza. But things soon began to turn sour as (according to Thatcher) her anointed successor proceeded to stray from the path of true Conservatism. Their relationship grew increasingly strained as she grew more Eurosceptic and made her displeasure ever more public.
4) Team Hague v Team Portillo
For sheer comedy value, this one had it all. Michael Portillo’s dream of taking over from John Major after the Tories were blown out of the water by New Labour in 1997 came crashing down as he lost his seat in the landslide. William Hague got the job, but it wasn’t too long before Portillo made it back in a by-election, after which there was much talk – at least among Hague’s paranoid praetorian guard – about the Portillistas scheming to snatch the top job for their Iberian icon. Every policy announcement, media interview and speech by the shadow chancellor was analysed for disloyalty (and for signs that he might be making a move).
Meanwhile Team Portillo grew increasingly frustrated by the right-wing populist thrust of Hague’s operation and its sheer incompetence. At the time, Tony Blair was walking all over the Conservative Party, so their infighting was a fine illustration of Sayre’s law: “In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”
3) Iain Duncan Smith v almost everyone
By 2001, Michael Portillo was privately convinced that the Tory party wasn’t ready for the modernisation that he thought was crucial to reviving its electoral fortunes. So after that year’s election defeat, he stood for the leadership with a measure of reluctance. What happened proved him right. Portillo had his youthful gay experiences dragged up by his opponents and didn’t make it into the ballot of grass-roots Tory members, who promptly chose the right-wing “headbanger” Iain Duncan Smith over the cuddly Europhile Ken Clarke.
As many predicted, Duncan Smith was a disaster and fast became a national joke. He was eventually defenestrated in a confidence vote after party donors made it clear that his time was up.
2) David Cameron (and the Notting Hill set) v Derek Conway and others
Remember Conway? The MP for Ted Heath’s old constituency? A good mate of David Davis? Got in trouble with the parliamentary authorities for employing his son as his parliamentary assistant while he was a full-time student? In 2004, after a story went round that the leadership wanted rid of “bed-blocking”, “old”, “suntanned faces” in the parliamentary party, Conway appeared on the BBC to denounce what he called the “Notting Hill set”– the modernisers around David Cameron. Cameron had the last laugh. In 2008, the committee on standards and privileges produced a damning report on Conway and the Tory leader withdrew the whip from him – no doubt more in sadness than in anger…
1) George Osborne v Theresa May
Throughout the coalition years, there were bitter policy disagreements between Osborne and May – particularly when she, as home secretary, insisted on trying (in vain) to cut immigration in ways that he, as chancellor, considered politically risky and economically illiterate. But then the Brexit vote happened, not only foiling Osborne’s plans to take over from Cameron but giving May a chance to humiliate him by refusing to offer him a cabinet post.
That led Osborne to the editorship of the London Evening Standard, which he has turned into a bully pulpit, helped by knowing where pretty much all the bodies are buried. Given that the Prime Minister presumably has only a limited shelf life after she blew the general election, let’s enjoy this feud while we can.
This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon