by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 1
June 2022
Explainer
07:15

Will Boris survive? History provides the clues

Since the War, the Tory party has swapped prime minister six times
by Peter Franklin
A broken man? Credit: Getty

It’s becoming ever more likely that Boris Johnson will face a vote of no confidence. Partygate won’t go away and Conservative MPs are realising the extent of the long-term damage done to their prospects of re-election.

The latest opinion poll is a shocker — showing Labour 11 points ahead; the PM’s personal approval ratings are subterranean; and this month’s ConHome Cabinet League Table puts him in the relegation zone.

Johnson’s allies are presenting a change of leadership as a reckless gamble. The Conservatives have already got a proven election winner at the helm, so why would they take a chance on some untested newbie?

But there’s an answer to that one: the lessons of history. Since the end of the Second World War, Conservative governments have swapped Prime Ministers six times — installing Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, John Major, Theresa May and Boris Johnson in Downing Street without first winning a general election.

In all but one case, these substitute leaders then went on to win the next election. The exception who proves the rule is Alec Douglas-Home — who though technically new, was very much part of the old guard — a throw-back, in fact.

By way of contrast, look at the circumstances in which Conservative governments have been thrown out by the voters. It doesn’t happen very often — just three times in our entire Post-War history; but each occasion is instructive.

The first time was 1964, when Douglas-Home was leader (see above). The second time was 1974 with Edward Heath, who’d been humiliated by the miner’s strike. The third time was 1997 with John Major, who’d never recovered from the Black Wednesday debacle. These were broken Prime Ministers who should have been replaced.

In Major’s case, the Tories wasted a golden opportunity. In 1995, faced with mounting attacks from from his own side, he took the initiative by resigning as party leader — though not as Prime Minister. This manoeuvre forced a leadership contest — allowing Major to put himself forward as a candidate and challenge his Tory rivals to “put up or shut up.” In the event, only John Redwood decided to put up — responding with a defiant slogan of his own: “no change, no chance.” His words proved prophetic: Redwood lost the leadership election and Major went on to lead his party to a devastating landslide defeat two years later.   

Conservative MPs in 2022 need to ask themselves about whether they’re in a similar situation. The Borisites will argue that Partygate is nothing like Black Wednesday. And they’re right — there’s no comparison between them. But then there never is — the disasters, debacles and scandals that break Prime Ministers are unique events. The Suez Crisis, the Profumo Scandal, the Winter of Discontent, the Brexit Referendum — there’s no common thread except the destruction of a leader’s credibility.

Therefore there’s no point in questioning the “seriousness” of Partygate. The only relevant question is whether Boris is broken or not. If he is, then history teaches his party what to do about it.

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Justin Clark
Justin Clark
27 days ago

I wouldn’t swap Boris Johnson for anyone.
Unless it is Lord Frost…. Steve Baker….Penny Mordaunt… Stephen Barclay…Dominic Raab…. likely in that order.

Last edited 27 days ago by Justin Clark
Matt M
Matt M
27 days ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

I think a successor will have to be a Brexiteer with senior cabinet experience who is appealing to the voters.
(My made up odds)
Dominic Raab: Damaged by Afghan withdrawal? Maybe – I think he can overcome it – it was really Biden’s mess. Not really very charismatic and sometimes easily stumped. Genuine Tory Brexiteer though I think. Probably the favourite. (3/1)
Steve Barclay: Unknown quantity (to me at least). Seems to have kept his nose clean. Does he have the personality to win voters over? Could be the dark horse. (5/1)
Rishi Sunak: Has the star quality but can he overcome getting an FPN? Not if Starmer and GG have to resign too. (10/1)
Liz Truss: Campaigned for Remain. Can we take the Theresa May gamble again? (10/1)
Michael Gove: Good but as DC pointed out in UnHerd yesterday, unlovable. (25/1)
Priti Patel: I don’t think speaks well enough, thinks on her feet quickly enough and has probably had her public image damaged beyond repair. (25/1)
Jeremy Hunt: Give me a break! (30/1)
Penny Mourdant: Never held a top cabinet position. (50/1)
Steve Baker: Ditto (and he is a closet Woke-ist) (50/1)
Kemi Badenoch: Ditto (without the Woke bit) (50/1)
Lord Frost: Ideal but not an MP (100/1)

Last edited 27 days ago by Matt M
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
26 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Rees-Mogg for me

Matt M
Matt M
26 days ago

I hadn’t even considered JRM. Can’t see him as much beyond 50/1 though

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
26 days ago

He has too many children to be PM. Moderation in all things.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
26 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Surely Frost can give up his seat in the HoL just as Benn did?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
25 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

If those are YOUR candidates and odds, then the Tories are really screwed! They need a decent credible candidate, whether a Remainer or not, even if, as I am, you are worried about Brexit. The alternative could well be a Labour-SNP coalition who would simply cave in to the EU on pretty much any negotiation.
Priti Patel is utterly useless and has achieved pretty much nothing in her remit except ranting at officials (apparently). But they are all are a very weak field, sorry to say. Lord Frost – good perhaps on policy but totally lacking in charisma or even outgoingness.

Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards
22 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Jezza at 30/1 I’d like a few quid on that , Stevie Barclay way too short at 5/1 but oozes class .

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
26 days ago
Reply to  Justin Clark

Ben Wallace?

AC Harper
AC Harper
27 days ago

Could the outcome of the Beer Gate investigations see the removal of Keir Starmer? Because if not then there are some double standards in play.
For many Boris is a hero, but he also has a hero’s failings. Are there any more heroes in the Conservative Party or are we going to be offered another manager?

vladimir gorelov
vladimir gorelov
27 days ago

Lord Frost indeed

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
27 days ago

Technical point: Alec Douglas-Home came as near as the pips to winning in 1964, only that age old Tory problem of failure to re distribute constituencies that really prevented him

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
25 days ago

Johnson’s fall from grace is truly remarkable. Can he win another election? Perhaps it’s worth looking at his personal policies that are annoying people. HS2, Net Zero, Huge immigration, Extreme Social liberalism, Tax and Spend, Big Government.
We know beyond doubt that all these are likely to make Conservatives vote against them, or abstain, in high numbers. That is proven time and again. Here’s the question though. Are any of these policies likely to encourage non-Tories to vote Conservative?
Because if the answer to that question is no, or anything approaching no, then the Conservatives are going down hard at the next election under Boris Johnson.
I think that is what is going to happen – and the reason is that all these policies were not at all obvious on the way in. Everyone was far too busy running away from May and Corbyn to look closely at what they were actually running to. Plus, there was a big imperative for all leavers to vote for Johnson. That imperative has, in most people’s minds, gone – we’re out of the EU, and we’re not going back.
I think the Conservatives are in for a new leader (and I simply cannot see one anywhere) or a lengthy period in opposition. I really fear that they’ve had it this time – and it gives me no pleasure to say so.

Brooke Walford
Brooke Walford
27 days ago

… but they won’t learn

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
26 days ago

Johnson is a pale imitation of one of those Latin American dictators from ” central casting, portrayed in high prowed Army caps, sunglasses as rows of unearned medals resplendent on some gaudy uniform: he is arguably the worst, most dishonest, morally bankrupt lazy, indolent PM in history, propped up by job clinging petit bourgeois self serving lower line manager breed MPs , devoid of spine.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
26 days ago

were we to be Italy, or Ukraine, Jeremy Clarkson would stand for an election… and would win… and probably reflect the views of a landslide of voters… and I am not joking.

John Tyler
John Tyler
26 days ago

Wow! So you’re not a fan then ?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
26 days ago

He is a KS though!

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
25 days ago

The Conservatives have been on the run since before the 2015 election. Cameron was set to fail to win a majority for the second time and so he offered the BREXIT referendum. When the referendum went against him, the Tories switched him for May. When May failed to win a majority in 2017 and looked to be offering the country a BREXIT deal that no one wanted, the Tories switched to Johnson. Now that Johnson is a liability, they are looking for someone else who can be presented as ‘new’. Johnson’s fate will be determined by whether or not the Tories come up with another alternative.

alan wright
alan wright
24 days ago

Suez, Winter of Discontent, Brexit, big issues. Profumo, press tittle tattle and Macmillan’s ill health.
How about the Expenses Scandal? More tittle tattle and it didn’t sink Brown, he sank himself.

Peter Fowler
Peter Fowler
26 days ago

What the Conservative party need to do after removing Boris Johnson is to publicly acknowledge that Brexit was folly and adopt a policy of re-joining the EU on the same basis as before.
If that is not possible negotiating as close a relationship as is consistent with reducing the harms to our trade that Brexit has caused to a minimum.
The UK maybe able to reason that the war in Ukraine demonstrates the need to rebuild burnt bridges and also President Macron alluding to a new European arrangement that includes the UK may make this a propitious time to start down this road.

Aidan Trimble
Aidan Trimble
26 days ago
Reply to  Peter Fowler

That is absolutely, categorically the very last thing that the Conservative Party should ever do.