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How to lose a leadership election Sunak and Truss should remember that sometimes it's better to lose

Mr DD (Getty)


February 22, 2022   8 mins

With MPs reassembling after their February break, the great Boris Johnson Leadership Melodrama will soon be back in the headlines. For the time being, at least, the Prime Minister survives, bloodied but not yet fatally wounded by that tumultuous encounter with a birthday cake. Yet even if he does cling onto power, everybody knows now that Boris is mortal.

The polls tell the story. Prime Ministers with a disapproval rating of 70% rarely last long. Nobody defies gravity forever. Margaret Thatcher didn’t; nor did Tony Blair, despite winning three elections. Johnson has won only one. And the next test is not far away. On 5 May voters across the country will go to the polls in the local elections. A terrible set of results, and more letters of no-confidence will surely flood in. For Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and their rivals, the prize must seem so tantalisingly close


And yet, and yet. Political history is littered with examples of potential leaders who struck too soon or waited too long, future England captains whose moment never came. Nobody remembers the R. A. Butler governments of the late Fifties and early Sixties, because they never happened. A decade later, Roy Jenkins sharpened the knife, raised it high about his head and prepared to plunge it deep into Harold Wilson’s back
 but the blow never fell. And a decade after that, everybody knew Tony Benn was going to become Labour leader one day — but he never did.

The list goes on. Willie Whitelaw delayed and delayed, loyal to the last to the beleaguered Ted Heath, and then found himself overtaken by, of all things, a woman. Michael Heseltine timed his deadly attack on Margaret Thatcher to perfection, only to discover that many of his fellow Conservative MPs would never forgive him for it.

Kenneth Clarke won three separate parliamentary ballots in three different Tory leadership contests, yet never wore the crown. David Davis arrived at the Conservative conference as a runaway favourite with two busty women in T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”, only to find that the party faithful preferred a smooth-talking shepherd’s-hut enthusiast instead. Even Boris Johnson’s first leadership bid exploded on the launch pad, sabotaged by his chief engineer.

And then there’s the most disastrous campaign of all, the Labour moderates’ risible attempt to unseat Jeremy Corbyn in the summer of 2016. “Angela is a star in the Labour firmament. She will be at my right hand throughout this contest and if I am successful, Angela will be alongside me as my right-hand woman.” The words of the future Labour leader Owen Smith, talking about his erstwhile rival Angela Eagle. That was just five-and-a-half years ago. Dame Angela is still there somewhere, lurking unnoticed on the backbenches. But poor Smith isn’t even an MP.

It would be nice to claim there’s a clever formula for success, or to tease out some immutable “lessons from history”, but that would be disingenuous. There’s no formula. Indeed, the joy of political leadership campaigns is that nobody can quite predict the strange chemistry that makes a winner, the peculiar combination of luck and personality, the unforeseeable, unrepeatable point when man (or woman) meets moment.

Take Labour’s Roy Jenkins, the embodiment of metropolitan citizen-of-the-world liberalism, whose admirers often describe him as one of the best Prime Ministers Britain never had. In the spring of 1968, the only question was not if, but when. Following the humiliating devaluation of the pound a few months earlier, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, seemed crippled beyond recovery. The public had tired of his endless slipperiness, and as a smart and urbane crisis Chancellor — Rishi Sunak parallel alert! — Jenkins seemed the only plausible successor.

On the Labour benches Jenkins commanded what he called “a dedicated group of commandos, waiting as it were with their faces blackened for the opportunity to launch a Dieppe raid against the forces of opportunism”. Their leaders reported that they had assembled an elaborate system of ‘dissident cells’ comprising more than a hundred supporters, as well as an ‘inner group’ who would co-ordinate the revolt. At a secret meeting on 17 June the chief plotters even produced a definitive list of some 120 potential rebels. All they needed was the signal to strike.

It never came. A couple of weeks later, Jenkins told them to hold off for the time being. The premiership was so close — but he “did not want to be implicated in actually launching an action”. A convicted assassin, he believed, would never wear the crown: “I will never be caught with a dagger in my hand unless it is already smoking with my enemy’s blood”.

So Jenkins waited, and waited
 and the moment passed. Wilson stayed on at Number 10 and Labour lost the next election. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, Jenkins lost his sheen. He went from tomorrow’s man to yesterday’s, without ever having been today’s. By the time Wilson retired in the spring of 1976, Jenkins’s chance had vanished. He had fallen out with the party’s Left wing over Europe, but there was a palpable sense, too, that he lacked the killer instinct.

Later, in his memoirs, Jenkins fell back on the excuse that he had never been ambitious enough, a clever way of complimenting himself for his own failure. But some of his supporters told a different story. “Roy was too ambitious, not insufficiently ambitious,” wrote his friend David Marquand. “He never thought it was the right moment; he always thought it was too risky”. The stakes were too high; he was paralysed by the fear of missing out. I wonder if, one day, Sunak’s friends will tell a similar story?

What of Jenkins’s insistence that the assassin never wins the ultimate prize? Well, there’s always the lesson of Heseltine in 1990. But such a flamboyant showman would have been deeply distrusted by many Tory MPs even if he’d never lifted a finger against Margaret Thatcher. And there are plenty of telling examples of political hitmen who made it all the way. Stanley Baldwin, instrumental in terminating Austen Chamberlain’s leadership in 1922, became Tory leader himself two years later. And Harold Macmillan succeeded Anthony Eden in 1957 precisely because many Tory MPs thought that by knifing Eden in the back, he had showed the cold, single-minded ruthlessness that Rab Butler lacked.

Then there’s the best-known political assassin of all, an object lesson in pitiless opportunism. Margaret Thatcher had spent the first four years of the Seventies nodding and smiling at Ted Heath’s policy U-turns. Not once had she whispered a word of dissent. And when, after the second general election of 1974, she announced that she was challenging him for the leadership, nobody seriously thought she would win.

The story goes that when, as a courtesy, Thatcher visited Heath to warn him of her intentions, he said coldly: “You’ll lose.” The Conservative parliamentary party, agreed his old rival Enoch Powell, “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent”. Even Mrs Thatcher’s family thought she was wasting her time. “You must be out of your mind,” remarked her husband Denis, not entirely supportively. “You haven’t got a hope.”

Yet as it turned out, Thatcher beat Heath by 130 votes to 119. (“A black day,” declared another of his old rivals, Reginald Maudling.) And now the strange magic of leadership contests took effect. With Heath gone, four new contenders, notably his lieutenant Willie Whitelaw, threw their hats into the ring. But it was too late; all the momentum lay with Thatcher. As the Telegraph remarked, it looked as if “a whole herd of fainthearts left it to a courageous and able woman to topple a formidable leader” and then “ganged up to deny her her just reward”. When the second ballot was held a week later, she stormed to victory. “My God!” exclaimed one Tory vice-chairman when the news came through. “The bitch has won!”

The other great canard about leadership elections is that you should keep an eye on the dark horse, with John Major’s victory in 1990 as Exhibit A. But was Major such a dark horse? He was, after all, Chancellor of the Exchequer, having just served a short stint as Foreign Secretary. It’s true that if the leadership election had been held a year or two earlier, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. But Major had timed his run to perfection, his victory a perfect example of how, in politics, you make your own luck. It would have been easy for him to waver in 1990: to bide his time and sit this one out. But he calculated, quite rightly, that he would never have a better chance. With cool, understated efficiency, he took it.

In reality, most dark horses never come remotely close to winning, and many soon relapse into utter obscurity. Who now recalls Peter Lilley’s leadership pitch in 1997? How many people look back on Michael Ancram as the great lost leader of 2001? Is there, perhaps, some parallel world in which Stephen Crabb faced Liam Fox in the final round of the Tory contest in 2016? Can there really be a universe where Mark Harper battled Esther McVey for the crown three years later?

Yet all of these people, presumably, must have imagined the pieces slotting into place: their colleagues marvelling at their unexpected talents, the other contenders falling away, the momentum sweeping them towards that historic audience at Buckingham Palace. Alas, it almost never works out that way. If you enter the contest as an outsider, you’re probably doomed before you start, because most MPs like backing winners.

A good example is one of the most colourful dark horses in modern political history, the hard-drinking, grammar-school-smiting Labour intellectual Tony Crosland. When Wilson resigned in 1976, Crosland fancied his chances. He looked at his rivals. Jim Callaghan, the favourite: too old. Michael Foot: too Left-wing. Roy Jenkins: too Right-wing. Denis Healey: too arrogant. Tony Benn: too mad. And it all seemed so straightforward. One by one the others would blow up, and Crosland would come through the middle.

So the future Prime Minister summoned his protĂ©gĂ©, Roy Hattersley, who would surely play a key role in the victorious campaign. They got straight down to business. The most important thing, Crosland said, was to get a “decent vote” in the first ballot, and build strength from there. “I take it you’ll vote for me.”

Silence. Then, at last, Hattersley confessed. He didn’t want to waste his vote, and had already promised to back Callaghan. Crosland couldn’t believe his ears. It was all falling apart, and the campaign had barely started. “You’ll not vote for me?” he said. “Then fuck off.”

Crosland finished dead last in the 1976 leadership election, with just 19 votes. And the winner? Callaghan, just as everybody had predicted. Dark horses aren’t dark horses by accident. Favourites are favourites for a reason.

So are there no lessons at all for Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss — or for Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and the host of other putative dark horses? Well, here are a few thoughts. Most politicians only get one chance. Miss your moment, and it never comes again. Courage is usually more admirable — and more effective — than caution. If you do stand, don’t say anything stupid. Ideally, don’t say anything at all.

None of this is very helpful, I know — not least because there are so many obvious exceptions. So to finish, here’s one ironclad rule of leadership contests, which may not be what the current hopefuls want to hear.

Really, honestly, it would be better to lose. Losers always have more fun. Just ask yourself: would Roy Jenkins have been able to enjoy quite so many agreeable three-course dinners if he’d been Prime Minister? Or would he rather have been defending the Government’s policy on salmonella? Would Denis Healey have been free to appear on TV with Roger Moore and Dame Edna Everage? Or would he rather have been at a meeting in Frankfurt with Helmut Kohl? Would Ken Clarke have been happier organising a junior ministerial appointment for John Bercow, or smoking his fifth cigar of the night in some West End jazz club?

For this is the great unspoken truth about leadership contests: it’s a competition to see who’s going to be the most despised person in the country in a couple of years’ time. Yes, you get to have your picture on the Downing Street stairs, just along from Gordon Brown and Theresa May. But as they would surely tell you, being Prime Minister is awful. Everything goes wrong, and everybody hates you. So instead of agonising about when to declare and what to say, just don’t do it. You’ll have a much happier life if you stay out, and the country will thank you for it.

Here endeth the lesson. Liz, Rishi: don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

dcsandbrook

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Great essay, but I disagreed with this bit:

Everything goes wrong, and everybody hates you.

I loved every minute of Thatcher’s rule, I felt safe and well-governed by a steely and principled leader intellectually equal to the challenges of the 1980s, I was heartbroken when she went and I have never had 10% as much confidence in any PM since.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I am, like you, an unreformed worshiper of Lady Thatcher*, primarily because she was an articulate, Oxford trained Chemist, and you can’t get any better than that.

However “what a complete shower”* many of her male colleagues were. Howe, Hesselshite, Major, Miguel Portillo, and even the verbose Alan Clark (who turns out to have been a Draft Dodger! ) to name but a few.

Fortunately I believe that Boris is venal enough to realise that if he is to win he has to become a Tory. First, deliver ‘smack in the mouth’* to Princess Nut Nut and remind of her place. Second, bin all this Green rubbish. We only produce a mere 0.8% of emissions so are irrelevant. Third, role back most, if not all of the ‘Blair’ Hate Crime legislation. Fourth, reintroduce the Navigation Acts, and close the Channel to unwanted immigrants, and finally get a haircut!

(* I always enjoy how those on the left cannot even speak her name and refer to her as “that woman”.)

(**Terry Thomas R.I.P.)

(*** Metaphorically speaking.)

Last edited 2 years ago by SULPICIA LEPIDINA
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Well, you can always fantasise….

David Harris
David Harris
2 years ago

In your (and my) dreams SL… unfortunately.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You are a true believer! Margaret Thatcher was h never popular in the country at large. Political, class snobbery and – yes – sexism all played their part in this. She was, however, rightly respected, which perhaps counts for a lot more.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Michael Askew
Michael Askew
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Maybe the srticle should have said “eventually everything goes wrong and everybody hates you.” Even the most ardent Thatcher admirer must recognise that the poll tax was a disaster.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Askew

It was the best thing she did.

Terry Davies
Terry Davies
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Safe and well governed? Ask those who worked in manufacturing and heavy industry. MT never really put alternatives in place to her dismantling of communities.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

“So are there no lessons at all for Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss — or for Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and the host of other putative dark horses?”

Liz Truss is well
ok, but lacks the will and intelligence of Margaret Thatcher. People forget how bright that particular industrial chemist was, how well she could explain Conservative philosophy. No one has done it as well since, unfortunately.

Jeremy Hunt is every smoothly arrogant middle manager. A fit David Brent in a better suit. No spine and no thank you.

Penny Mordaunt believes men in dresses are women. She’s no Conservative, despite the Hyacinth Bucket physique.

Tom Tugendhat was cruel to Roger Scruton along with Johnny Mercer. He’s a cancel culture merchant and no Conservative.

Rishi Sunak is a beaky, characterless nonentity.

Sajid Javid sold himself as an Atlas Shrugged sort of Conservative, but is a poor speaker. I don’t trust him.

Priti Patel has failed to control her department and failed on immigration. She seems utterly hopeless and not leadership material.

And of course Boris deserved to get in for Brexit, but since then is clearly a believer in a big state, high taxes, high immigration and is no Conservative. And of course, he raised up all the rest of the useless idiots.

When I think of MT or Tebbit or Keith Joseph or Powell or half a dozen others, I despair. The lack of quality in the current cabinet is just depressing. I wouldn’t mind them being so lightweight if they understood or cared about Conservativism.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Thatcher wasn’t conservative, as she didn’t conserve anything. She was a liberal through and through, which I mean in the classical sense of the word as opposed to those that call themselves liberals these days

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

She conserved the UK constitutional settlement, in sharp contrast to the ill thought out devolution measures introduced by the Blair government. She conserved the UK’s economic and diplomatic standing in the world, after their precipitous relative declines in the previous three decades. She conserved the UK’s independence within the European Community by securing the rebate without which membership might have become politically unsustainable a lot earlier. She conserved British democracy in the face of challenge from the IRA, and the hard left. She kept her party united and in power for two decades, saving the country from the disaster of a Foot – Benn government.

David Harris
David Harris
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Oh how I miss the Bless-ed Margaret.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Absolutely

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

so Dan, who…
the only conservative values I’ve seen are through Steve Baker, David Frost, and … that’s it I think. no wonder we are where we are. Boris remains.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

Daniel, now Lord Hannan?

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Spot on, thank you.

Simon Davies
Simon Davies
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Truss was one of the authors of the book “Brittania Unchained”. She believes the indigenous British are lazy and should be replaced by more desperate and industrious people from the developing world. She’s a typical neo-lib who just sees this country as an economic zone.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Davies

the lazy ones are lazy for sure

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

I admire Margaret Thatcher, but she was not arguably a true Conservative at all. She much more resembled an old fashioned Whig, with her political programme overwhelmingly consisting of economic liberalism. She was suspicious of the classic Tory institutions and of course was brought up a Methodist and not in the Church of England. She was also, like those Whigs, sometimes rather cold hearted at the consequences of her free market policies. A mass of newly redundant coal miners and steel workers were not suddenly likely to be able to get other work.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

They only had what work they did have because they leeched subsidies off others. It was a great day when they were finally sacked.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

You never know what anybody will like until they become PM.
Both Liz Truss and Sajid Javid are poor interviewers but both have ministerial experience of several depts with a radical right history prior to becoming a minister.
Boris Johnson has limited executive skills and married to a High Tax Big Govt Utopian Green Agenda..Both Javid or Truss have the scope to be much better PMs than Boris although how that plays in the polls is unpredictable as neither will have much public appeal but the same is true of the dull Starmer.Wonder if Angela Rayner will regret not trying to be Labour Leader last summer

L Paw
L Paw
2 years ago

Good article. Seems to me that Thatcher was the last UK PM of the ‘wartime’ generation. They were brought up in a country without a welfare state, no ‘blessed’ NHS. Many battled their way up out of poverty, experienced tough schooling & had respect for those in authority. In many ways a tougher world.
Remember that MT was hated in office, particularly in Scotland, Wales and the northern industrial regions where so many jobs went. Of course also by the left.
She was the finest PM we have had since Churchill, the reset of industrial relations, deregulation of city of London, bringing end to cold war and Soviet Union, right to buy revolution and other achievements on her watch.
No one if that calibre appears to be in Tory party today

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Rubiayt, Omar Khayyam,

LXVIII
We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

LXIX
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

LXX
The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss’d you down into the Field,
He knows about it all–He knows–HE knows!

LXXI
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

LXXII
And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help–for It
As impotently moves as you or I.”

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Is that the Sir Richard Francis Burton, KCMG,FRGS, translation, may I ask? Or perhaps your own?

Last edited 2 years ago by SULPICIA LEPIDINA
Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

Anthony Crosland was a dreadful character. Years ahead of his time in his damaging bullsh*t.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Interesting piece, thank you.

David Oram
David Oram
1 year ago

Splendidly prescient piece! How right you were (thus far) Mr Sandbrook.
By the way the ‘busty’ brunette with David Davies is the now backbench MP Fay Jones.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Groan, Sandbrook posts the first article of zillions that we’ll get in the next few weeks about Johnson’s replacement. Even the beeb has given it a rest in the last week or so – maybe this is your application to work there?
Geez Dominic, couldn’t you find something more interesting than this to write about? I’ll have to go back to reading books until this pointless, inane king killing process is over.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Sadly the polyester clad Kent masons who are the politburo of the ” ToyliTory party” will never support the superior beings Rishi and Kwasi…