The role of a party leader is vital. After all, in the words of Charles Kennedy – arguably the greatest leader of the Liberal Democrats – “Good political leadership for me involves getting the big decisions right – however difficult, however controversial, however potentially divisive and then being able to take people with you. And that requires something else as well – being wise enough to know when it’s time to listen.”
These are three examples of party leaders who arguably did not fit that bill, for reasons of being too out of touch, radical, or uninspiring (or all three!), which were some of the worst choices political parties could have made when choosing their leaders.
Note that this list will only include leadership candidates in the year they were running and had a credible chance of winning.
Rab Butler (1963, Conservative)
In 1963, then-prime minister Harold Macmillan stepped down in the face of declining health.
The leadership contest was of particular sensitivity considering that the Profumo Affair had blown a reputational hole in the Conservative Party. In the event, Secretary of State for War John Profumo had an extramarital affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler, who herself was reported to have had a potentially national security-jeopardising relationship with a Soviet navy attache.
At the time, the leading candidate to be affirmed as the new prime minister was Rab Butler. However, due to a new Act of Parliament influenced by Tony Benn, peers sitting in the House of Lords could renounce their peerage to sit in the Commons.
Amongst those in the House of Lords was Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home, whose prime ministerial hopes relied on becoming an elected MP.
On October 18th (the same day The Times ran the headline “The Queen May Send For Mr. Butler Today”), Home was appointed the prime minister by Queen Elizabeth.
The decision led to a divide within the party as Conservative MPs Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell refused to serve in Home’s Cabinet. Even prior to Home’s appointment, Macleod, Powell, Lord Hailsham, and Reginald Maulding (known as “The Quad”), wanted Butler to refuse to serve, meaning Home was unable to form a government but Butler relented.
Home’s time as prime minister is largely unremarkable, gaining a reputation as an uncharismatic and out-of-touch aristocrat. In the end, he would serve less than a year – the second shortest term of the 20th century – after he would lead the Conservatives to defeat in the 1964 election, the first time in nearly two decades that the party would lose to a party with a majority.
During his tenure, the inter-party opposition was evident, with Iain Macleod infamously smearing Home in a Spectator article in January 1964, revealing the smoke-filled room shenanigans of Home’s appointment, referring to his victory as a conspiracy by an Etonian “magic circle.”
Not only would Butler have had the support of influential colleagues such as “The Quad” but he is widely thought to have been the best man to have led the Conservatives to electoral success the following year.
Author Charles Williams notes, “According to many observers, not least Opposition leader Harold Wilson, Rab Butler would, as prime minister, have won the 1964 general election.” Meanwhile, Ian Gilmour’s 2004 biography of Butler notes how both Home and Macmillan had conceded it was right for Butler to have taken over.
Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of the 1963 leadership contest was a more transparent and formal process, which would first be displayed in 1965 – by which point Butler had already departed frontline politics.
Denis Healey (1980, Labour)
It would be a misrepresentation to call Labour’s 1974-1979 government anything other than a hard time. At a time of inflation peaking at 25%, the IMF crisis, and rising unemployment, the Labour government faced mounting crises up to their defeat in the 1979 election.
After Thatcher was triumphant over James Callaghan that year, Labour suffered a deep divide as the left- and right-wing factions of the party fundamentally disagreed on the future of the Labour movement.
In the end, the libertarian socialist Michael Foot would reign supreme, in what many see as a disastrous outcome for Labour.
After Callaghan decided to step down, the immediate favourite to be his successor was Denis Healey. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and longest-serving Defense Secretary in British history, Healey was favoured by Ladbrokes to take over, given odds of 4-5.
On top of this, Healey had proved himself to be popular both within his party and amongst the broader British electorate. He had won the 1979 shadow cabinet election as elected by his fellow MPs, and – more impressively – beat Thatcher in a public opinion poll asking who would be a better prime minister.
Initially, it seemed Healey might sweep the competition with a first-round ballot win – that was until, feeling pressured by the party’s socialist wing as well as his wife, Foot stepped up (pun intended) and entered the contest.
A former Leader of the House of Commons and then-Deputy Labour leader (even filling in for Callaghan during Prime Minister’s Questions), Foot was able to exert enough influence to narrowly beat out Healey.
Foot is consistently referred to as one of the great parliamentarians of the modern age but, as a leader, had a tenure marred by constant political quagmires,
Amongst these occurred shortly after Foot was elected when the Social Democratic Party formed. Led by the “Gang of Four” of Bill Rodgers, Michael Owen, Shirley Williams, and Roy Jenkins, the group of ex-Labour Cabinet ministers broke off to establish a new political party in a huge blow to Foot’s leadership.
In the ensuing general election in 1983, Labour would have their most disastrous showing in the post-war era to that point, with the Thatcher-led Conservatives extending to a 144-seat majority whilst Labour only just won over 200 seats and came within just over 2% of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the popular vote.
Part of the reason too was the infamous “longest suicide note in history” manifesto, which featured radical policies such as the abolition of the House of Lords, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and an exit from the European Economic Community.
Denis Healey would instead serve as Deputy leader, even fending off a competitive challenge from socialist Tony Benn which he won by “a hair of [his] eyebrow” (in his own words), winning by just 0.4%.
Michael Foot’s successor Neil Kinnock remarked that it may have been a better idea for Healey to win to prevent Foot from the “wretched treatment” he received from the mainstream press – including The Sun headline “Do you seriously want this old man to run Britain” (an article which referred to him as “as dead as a stuffed dodo”) and the famous donkey jacket incident.
Kenneth Clarke (1997, Conservative)
The 1997 election was an unadulterated disaster for the Conservative Party. That year, the Tories won just 30.7% of the vote as Tony Blair’s New Labour picked up over 400 seats. As well as a short-term catastrophe for the party, it was a long-term loss too. The party had been wiped out in both Scotland and Wales whilst Michael Portillo – the man projected by many to be the next party leader – lost his seat in a shock result.
In the following leadership election, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke won the first two ballots. However, in the final run-off, Clarke fell short to William Hague – the loss being blamed in part on Ken Clarke’s pro-Europe stance in contrast to the increasing Eurosceptic party. (Clarke has been likened to Roy Jenkins by the fact that his belief in Europe was arguably what held him from becoming party leader.)
It did make sense for the Conservatives to elect a young leader. Hague, the youngest Tory leader since Pitt The Younger 200 years earlier, would be in a position to reinvent the party’s stale and passe image.
However, by the 2001 general election, Hague’s leadership had proven to be ineffective. In the election, the Conservatives won nine seats whilst they lost seven to the Liberal Democrats and one to Labour. The Sun’s endorsement of Tony Blair for a second time and The Times’s first-ever Labour endorsement were pre-election confirmation that with Hague at the helm, the Tories stood no chance.
Tory grandee Clarke would have been a better-suited leader, with Hague becoming the first Tory leader in the 20th century to spend his whole tenure in opposition and one of only two (alongside Austen Chamberlain) to never be prime minister. This is by no means saying Clarke would have won, but it is likely the party would have done better than a net gain of one seat!
After all, Clarke was popular, with both support from his own party and from the broader public.
According to the UK Polling Report, Clarke was the first choice of more people than his four opponents combined! As well as a public favourite, he was supported in the 1997 election by a range of MPs within his own party, ranging from Europhile Michael Heseltine to Eurosceptic John Redwood.
By the time of the 2001 election, the BBC noted how Clarke was “the most popular Conservative politician with the British people at large and party supporters as a whole.” It seemed he was more popular with the electorate at large than his own party.
The so-called “Big Beast”’s acclaim was in contrast to Hague, who as well as the infamous baseball cap, was seen by 66% of respondents in a Daily Telegraph poll as “a bit of a wally.”
In his memoirs Kind of Blue, Clarke reflected on the “quite dreadful experience” Hague had as a leader, hopelessly leading a party in crisis through a time of divide between Hague and Portillo supporters.
In Clarke’s own words, the Rushcliffe MP explained how if he had won, Hague could be in Number 10, explaining: “He could still have been Prime Minister now if he’d left me to take the flak.”