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The forgotten Earl who can save the Tories Alec Douglas-Home should be a warning to Rishi Sunak

The man who can save Rishi Sunak? (Bettmann/Getty)

The man who can save Rishi Sunak? (Bettmann/Getty)


November 8, 2023   5 mins

Is Rishi Sunak doomed to lose the next election? Yesterday’s King’s Speech, the first of the new reign but almost certainly the last before voters go to the polls, was the Prime Minister’s big opportunity to set out a winning agenda. Yet so far, the announcements have done little to persuade commentators that the Conservatives are on course for victory. Even when policies address Britain’s long-term challenges, they are dismissed as immaterial to Tory chances of re-election. But Sunak is far from the first Conservative leader to face tough electoral odds and from the long roster of previous leaders, he can definitely find some consolation. Of them all, it is the now largely forgotten Alec Douglas-Home who might provide some valuable political guidance.

The 14th Earl of Home emerged as leader in autumn 1963 after one of the most contentious leadership selections in Conservative history. The process even forced him to rebrand, becoming Sir Alec Douglas-Home when compelled by democratic mores to disclaim his hereditary title. His party was divided, behind in the polls, and widely expected to lose the next election. The circumstances were unpropitious, and on first inspection Douglas-Home doesn’t offer an encouraging role model for Sunak. When voters had their say on his leadership in the 1964 election, he was ejected from office in favour of Harold Wilson. But in his short time at the helm, Douglas-Home managed to turn a widely forecast electoral blowout for the Conservatives into one of the closest contests of the century. When all the votes were counted, Labour led the Conservatives by just 0.7%, earning them an overall majority of just four seats.

Douglas-Home’s turnaround mission began by restoring stability and decency to a government rocked by scandal. Throughout the spring and summer of 1963, rumours swirled around Westminster about War Secretary John Profumo’s affair with the showgirl Christine Keeler, who’d also had a fling with a Soviet Naval attachĂ©. Both decency and national defence were said to be under threat by the actions of a government minister. Profumo strenuously denied the allegations in Parliament — a straightforward lie — and was ultimately forced to resign, but only after his lapse in judgement exposed a government that appeared to have lost its moral compass. Douglas-Home was one of the few senior ministers who managed to stay aloof from the sordid affair, preserving his reputation and enabling his appointment as prime minister to signal a clear turning of the page.

Sunak’s premiership began in much the same spirit. On the steps of Downing Street one year ago, he told the country that his “government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. It was a promise that things would change after two Tory premierships were prematurely felled — one by scandal, the second by a mini-budget that called the government’s economic credibility into question. Sunak, the former chancellor known for his hard work and teetotalism, was well placed to signal change at the top. But as is now clear, change alone isn’t enough for the public to look at the Conservatives with fresh eyes.

Like Douglas-Home before him, Sunak also needs to find ways to get the better of a revitalised Labour party. The Tories’ opponent six decades ago was the wily and accusatory Harold Wilson. From the moment Douglas-Home walked through the door of No. 10 Wilson pounced on his aristocratic status, alleging that he had won the leadership thanks to his “family and hereditary connections” in an affront to the meritocratic spirit of the age. Against Wilson’s class politics, Douglas-Home fired back that while he may have been the 14th Earl of Home, “Mr Wilson, when you come to think of it, is the 14th Mr Wilson”. His pithy line, combined with his decent and earnest approach to politics, helped make Labour’s attacks look both unfair and ineffective.

Keir Starmer has been borrowing from the Wilson playbook in his attacks on Sunak. Whilst insisting that he is “very relaxed about people being rich and getting rich”, a tactic borrowed from another Labour leader, Starmer has consistently chided Sunak for his personal wealth. Yet Sunak is no landed aristocrat. His story — the migrants’ son who went on to lead his country — is self-evidently one of ambition realised in a meritocratic country. But Labour clearly sees the Sunak family’s success, and that of the family he married into, as one of his principal weaknesses. Douglas-Home repudiated Wilson by tapping into the country’s sense that what someone does, not what they’re born with, should determine how you judge them. Sunak would do well to turn his own story back on Labour, emphasising how his life shows a Britain where hard work and determination pays off — a message Labour will not want to oppose.

While Douglas-Home’s approach earned him the right to be heard among an electorate that had grown weary of his party, it wasn’t enough to win the election. Two key failings denied him another term. Firstly, Douglas-Home failed to heal his party after his bumpy ascent to the top of British politics. When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced his resignation in October 1963, there were no clear rules for the selection of the new prime minister. The decision would ultimately lie with the Queen, who would take her advice from Macmillan. Over the course of 10 days, senior Conservatives jostled in unprecedented and chaotic scenes to earn themselves the Queen’s commission. Douglas-Home stayed above the fray, refusing to comment on the leadership and even briefly ruling himself out of contention before he emerged as the choice of Macmillan and senior Tories.

The appointment of a peer crushed the ambitions and bruised the egos of many Conservatives, especially those in the Commons. Two senior MPs, Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell, were so outraged that they refused to serve in Douglas-Home’s government. Macleod went on to write a denunciation for The Spectator of the “magic circle” that had put Douglas-Home in office, while Powell vented his fury through anonymous articles in The Times, attacking the government’s policies and direction. Douglas-Home later said that their election year antics cost the Tories at the polls.

While Sunak’s elevation to the premiership followed a process with clear and predetermined rules, that hasn’t prevented a small number of MPs and activists from echoing allegations of illegitimacy from 60 years ago. Perhaps this was inevitable after the rapid turnaround of Conservative leaders left supporters of Johnson and Truss disgruntled and unexpectedly on the backbenches. Sunak has built a big-tent cabinet, including senior names from both former administrations. But the warning from Douglas-Home’s experience is that it only takes a small number of malcontents for a party to look divided. With the benchmark so low, it will take an almighty display of political skill from Sunak to keep his party’s divisions contained as polling day approaches.

Douglas-Home’s second big mistake concerned policy, specifically the abolition of the Resale Price Maintenance (RPM). Under the antiquated RPM, shops had to sell branded products at the price recommended by the manufacturer. With its removal, they could compete on price. So far, so good — for the consumer. The problem for Douglas-Home was that those in the firing line were an essential part of the Tory voting coalition: small business owners and shopkeepers. Fearing they would be undercut by major stores and driven out of business, they revolted. It was, according to Ian Gilmour, “Sir Alec’s Poll Tax”.

One motivation for the policy was the pursuit of a legacy, a means of rebutting Labour’s claim that the Conservatives had overseen “13 wasted years”. Six decades on Starmer has been making the same criticism. The challenge for Sunak, who is clearly keen to use the time between now and the next election fruitfully, is to show that his party is still brimming with ideas while recognising what can be achieved in the fifth year of a parliament — and what cannot. By abolishing RPM, Douglas-Home discovered the worst kind of electoral dividing line: one that separated him from his voters. Sunak will be hoping that yesterday’s announcements can bring the two closer together and improve his party’s polling.

One silver lining for Sunak is that, compared to Douglas-Home, he has the benefit of time. Douglas-Home’s premiership ended after just 363 days; Sunak has around another year (longer if he really wants it) before going to the polls. No two elections are the same and the playbook that would have won for Douglas-Home in 1964 won’t be the same for Sunak. But if the Prime Minister can learn the lessons of 60 years ago, he could still deliver a competitive electoral performance, as Douglas-Home did, and possibly even a Conservative victory. If not, Sunak may find that it isn’t just the beginning of his premiership that looks like Douglas-Home’s, but its ending too.


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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago

The difference is that Alec Douglas-Home was a veteran foreign policy expert having first entered parliament 32 years before his premiership, was a gentleman in an age when that counted for something and was not personally ambitious. In contrast Sunak is an ambitious comparative political neophyte but like Sir Alec’s political misstep with the abolition of Resale Price Maintainance that hacked off a section of natural Tory voters Sunak has failed to implement any real legislation to convince Tory’s that the party are not simply fake Conservatives.

Last edited 7 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Perfectly put sir, thank you.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

That is an excellent summation.
A word that associates itself with Douglas-Home, and so many Politicians of his era, is authenticity. Whether you agreed with their policy-positions or not, they said what they believed and tried to act on it. There’s not many MPs now you would say that about.
Nothing would improve the prospects of this country more than ditching the current model of Parliament being filled with professional politicians – of all parties – the majority of whose ambition seems to be more about personal promotion and advancement, rather than a deeply-felt desire to serve.

Last edited 7 months ago by Paddy Taylor
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I am not sure how professional the politicians are. Both Sunak and Starmer were only elected to the House in 2015. But certainly there seems to be more egocentricity and a lack of true collegiality in that Sir Alec was the last PM to be willing to resign from the party leadership and come back and serve in the cabinet in a more junior role. Heath seems to have set the tone for subsequent departing PMs. Too many prima donnas and too few dedicated to service and willing to argue their opinion without getting their way.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Too much egocentricity and not enough eccentricity perhaps ?
Is there anyone left in parliament you’d actually make the effort to go and hear speak ? Where you might learn something new or original. Rather than just being spun a line by someone who’s too scared/too lazy/just incapable of thinking for themselves.
Whatever you may think of them, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell all had what it took to engage people. Probably because they were prepared to take the risk of being wrong in public (and frequently were). But also sometimes right. They’re all scared of being unpopular and “being wrong”. In other words, too gutless to lead.
But it’s looking like we’re on for another “man with a boat or a man with a pipe” contest. Or swimming pool vs knighthood.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Boy – that took well over 12 hours to clear the censors. Seems harmless enough to me.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

You mentioned Enoch Powell perhaps?

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

But so did the author ! He started it.

Alan Elgey
Alan Elgey
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Trying to decode the references to boats, pipes, swimming pools and knighthoods?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

There’s a distinct impression that Sunak couldn’t actually care less about the forthcoming election. He’ll go through the motions of course, but he has the air of a man who made it to the top without having any particular vision and having done so, will happily sail off into the (Californian) sunset with his status guaranteed, like a slightly more successful version of Nick Clegg.

He no doubt made good use of last week’s bro fest with Elon Musk.

Last edited 7 months ago by Steve Murray
Iris C
Iris C
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Wrong! Rishi Sunak’s ability to think on his feet and give memorable speeches put him in the front line of successful politicians. The content of the King’s Speech had something for everyone and the PM had no hesitation in taking a moral stance on the Hamas massacres rather than swaying in the wind to curry public opinion as demonstrated in the present alien marches.
You give weight to the views of “commentators” but they are mostly anti-government and will not necessarily reflect the views of the voters come a General Election.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago
Reply to  Iris C

Sunak has already had more time as PM than Douglas-Home but has made virtually no progress at all in the polls, and enacted very few Conservative measures. Considering his very high poll ratings as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020, it appears that the more the electorate see of Sunak, the less they like him.

Last edited 7 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Iris C
Iris C
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Polls do not necessarily reflect the views of the electorate. I give three examples – Brexit (even Farage was stunned at the result), Scottish Independence (55% were meant to be supporting it pre-election) and now the Australian settlers bill.
Many people with contrary views don’ want to be seen to be against an emotive, well-publicised subject.

0 0
0 0
7 months ago

Lord Home was, as many Foreign Secretaries before him, a member of the Traveller’s Club in Pall Mall.. One of the rules of the Travellers was that any member who sat at a single table did not wish to be disturbed . On that day 18th October  in 1963 Lord Home entered the club ordered a sherry picked up the Evening Standard, walked up the stairs to the dining room , sat at a single table, propped up the midday edition of  the Evening Standard and had lunch undisturbed. The headline of the paper for all to see was ‘ Lord Home kisses hands of Queen’ thus   becoming the next Prime Minister. He finished his lunch, had a coffee, returned the Evening Standard and walked back across St. James’s Park  to the Foreign Office. No one spoke to him. Our new Prime Minister shunned showy celebration.
 
In about 1970  I was in the Border Country and discovered that the gardens of the Home family home, the Hirsel, were open to the public that day. I can imagine that Harold Wilson would display the photograph of himself with his cabinet, which traditionally is taken in the garden of number 10 Downing St., on his drinks cabinet  above the bottles of Wincarnis. I expect Tony Blair has various copies for each of his various abodes all framed in gilt placed in  prominent positions.  Wandering around the lovely grounds of the Hirsel I went into the potting shed where above neat rows of forks, spades, rakes and besoms  hung the photograph of Sir Alec with his cabinet in the garden of number 10 Downing St.
 
Having retired from politics Sir Alec went round the world visiting  the Foreign Secretaries  whom had known during his period in the Foreign Office. John Foster Foster Dulles was on his deathbed in a hospital in Washington. He said to Sir Alec ‘I think you were right over Suez after all’. In China he met Mr. Chou En Lai and through an interpreter asked him ‘what do you think would have happened had Mr. Khrushchev being assassinated and not President Kennedy.’ The interpreter passed on the question and gave the reply  â€˜ Mr. Chou En Lai thinks that if Mr. Khrushchev had been assassinated instead of President Kennedy then Mr Onassis would not have married Mrs. Khrushchev.’

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
7 months ago
Reply to  0 0

Excellent stuff

NIGEL PASSMORE
NIGEL PASSMORE
7 months ago

‘While Sunak’s elevation to the premiership followed a process with clear and predetermined rules…’
But it didn’t really did it. Sunak was the usual Tory Party MP’s least worst continuity candidate (See also T May). They forced Truss (the members elected choice) to resign and then with only one candidate conveniently avoided having to go back to those pesky Conservative members. Two big problems with this approach:
As PM Sunak has been as disasterous as May. This is because he owes his poistion exclusively to MPs trying to be all things to all of them in the Broad Church of the ‘Conservative’ Parlaimentary party. This has resulted in a confused mess (any idea what he personally stands for?) where he is talking a ‘good game’ but unable to deliver anything. He has no popular electarol mandate to keep those MPs in his party who disagree with him in line (as Johnson could for a while) i.e.you are only here as an MP because you were elected on this platform so back in your box.Secondly, metaphorically, sticking two fingers up at 60% of your membership shortly before you ask them to give up their time to campaign in an election is unlikely to be good for your prospects (see recent by-elections)
There are some parallels with Douglas-Hume. However, he had not been formally rejected by his wider party before becoming PM. That, I beleive, is a critical distinction. Where Sunak has some chance is Starmer is no Wilson, and the Labour party may very well implode over Gazza. I suspect the next election may well be one of the lowest turnouts we have ever seen.
Regards
NHP

Last edited 7 months ago by NIGEL PASSMORE
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
7 months ago
Reply to  NIGEL PASSMORE

Good summing up. But I didn’t realise Paul Gascoigne had such an influence over left wing politics.

NIGEL PASSMORE
NIGEL PASSMORE
7 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

I don’t know why, but my edits kept being rejected – so I gave up!

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

With things the way they are right now, I think some of us might well vote for Gazza is he put himself forward …

Last edited 7 months ago by Peter B
Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
7 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

It’s not the football player, it’s the shirt he wears. The strip, as it were.

Oh, never mind


Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
7 months ago
Reply to  NIGEL PASSMORE

Indeed. The 1922 Committee seem to have carte blanche to make up new rules for every leadership election.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  NIGEL PASSMORE

Best ever Tory PM, WSC – chosen by Labour MPs! Certainly didn’t get anywhere near the Party membership thank goodness or World might look v different. That begs a question, have the Tory party membership ever chosen someone who didn’t prove an utter disaster?

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Margaret Thatcher ? Stanley Baldwin ? Lord Salisbury ? All got repeatedly re-elected, so can’t have been total disasters.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Not chosen by the Tory Party membership. Chosen by just their MPs.
Point being when it gets to Golf Club bores getting involved (metaphor) the judgment calls been pretty dire.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

No leader chosen by the Tory membership has ever lost a general election.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

So, you think Liz Truss needs to come back then !?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  NIGEL PASSMORE

The prime minister (whatever party) requires to have the confidence of parliament. The opinions of party members are literally meaningless when it comes to selecting a parliamentary leader.
Electing a looney like Truss was never going to work.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
7 months ago

Starmer has no charisma at all and that was on display in the debate yesterday. I thought he was about to fall asleep in the middle of his speech.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Rishi Sunak is hardly Mr Personality!

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
7 months ago

For once I agree with you. Don’t let it happen again.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

I doubt you will be so fortunate again…

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
7 months ago

Alec Douglas-Home was (a) widely respected even (secretly) by his political opponents (b) hugely experienced and (c) seemingly free from the vices which affect most politicians. Iain Macleod cast a shadow over his appointment but his real problem (apart from the 13-year legacy) was the enmity of Enoch Powell; a hugely influential man at that time.

Halvard Granfoss
Halvard Granfoss
7 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

I don’t think Powell felt any personal animosity towards Douglas-Home. The two of them corresponded amicably well after Powell was sacked from the shadow cabinet in 1968. Powell objected on principle to the way Douglas-Home had ascended to the premiership.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
7 months ago

It was a magic circle stitch up, of course. An alternative is choice by the membership (e.g. Liz Truss) which has not been an unqualified success.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

Of course that still tends to be the way the MDs of large businesses are selected although large shareholders might have influence. The staff certainly don’t get a vote.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
7 months ago

I can only see Sunak’s popularity fast disappear down the plug hole when he makes the fatal mistake of nodding through the WHO’s legislative attack on our sovereignty in May next year. He refuses debate as he does with the Mrna vaccines. To me he is a member of the ” American establishment” and does what he is told.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
7 months ago

Anybody still peddling the idea that the Tories have a chance at the next election will weep bitter ( and funny) tears of delusion the morning after polling day.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
7 months ago

Never overestimate the intelligence of the electorate!

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
7 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Or underestimate its wisdom.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago

Many Tories don’t want to be in power now. Happy to do the proverbial ‘hospital pass’ to Labour and then have a proper internal fight about whether they become Reform or remain a more traditional Tory party.
Tories been having an internal spat for last 30+yrs. Reflective of big Right wing contradictions on the nature of our problems and solutions. Not so bad when in Opposition (albeit the toxicity generated still impacts the whole Nation via their Right Wing media friends). But when in power we end up where we are now.

0 0
0 0
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

00, DR
See Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn: The delight of political life is in Opposition. The very inaccuracy which is permitted to Opposition is in itself a charm worth more than ministerial power.