Adrian Lee: October 1963. Macmillan’s resignation – and the last Conservative leader chosen without an election of any kind. | Conservative Home

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

In October 1963, a Conservative Prime Minister resigned and the Party was forced to select a new Leader. The rivalry between the different contestants was played out in front of the cameras and the divisions were commented upon gleefully by the press.

Just four years before, on Thursday 8th October 1959, the Conservatives, under the leadership of Harold Macmillan, had won an historic third term and increased their majority from 60 to 100. In contrast, Labour, although led by moderate Hugh Gaitskell, appeared divided and increasingly manipulated by the Left.

With strikes on the rise, Labour’s reputation had been tarnished by its union links. Less than two months before polling day, the Boulting Brother’s satire I’m Alright Jack had opened to rave reviews. With an all-star cast, including Terry Thomas and Richard Attenborough, it was sure to gain attention. However, it was Peter Sellers’ brilliant portrayal of Fred Kite, the belligerent Marxist shop steward, that deservedly won the plaudits. By the election, the film had become the biggest cinema attraction of the year, with over 2 million people having seen it.

Labour was also damaged by ridicule of its bearded, duffle-coated, coffee-house beatnik activists. From 1957, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.N.D.) had built a power base within Labour, and they could not be trusted on defence.

In 1959, few would have predicted that such a substantial Conservative majority could have been overturned at the next General Election. But, as Macmillan would later remark, “events” conspired to change the course of history. Many of these events were the result of his own economic dogma. Macmillan was enthralled to high-spending Keynesianism, believing that it was government’s direct responsibility to maintain full employment.

As early as January 1958, Peter Thorneycroft, his first Chancellor of the Exchequer, had argued that public expenditure was excessive and urged spending cuts to prevent inflation. Macmillan rejected this advice, which led to the resignation of the entire Treasury team. Thorneycroft was replaced by Derek Heathcote-Amory, who carried on the spending spree.

By 1961, the United Kingdom was experiencing a serious balance of payments crisis. With the deficit rising, Macmillan’s third Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd, responded with the introduction of a public sector pay freeze and set up a new economic planning quango, the National Economic Development Council (N.E.D.C.). Here union bosses, civil servants and captains of industry could thrash out their differences. It came to typify the discredited “beer and sandwiches” approach to industrial relations. Inflation rose to 4.3 percent in 1962.

The Conservatives started losing by-elections badly, most notably in Orpington in March 1962. Eric Lubbock, the Liberal candidate, overturned a Conservative majority of 14,760 and replaced it with his own of 7,855 – a swing of 30.7 percent.

The economy was not Macmillan’s only headache in his final months in Number 10. An unpopular decolonisation policy, a failed attempt to join the E.E.C. and a series of espionage scandals (culminating in Profumo) all led to his sudden decision to resign the Conservative Leadership.

Macmillan was rumoured to have been found to have terminal prostate cancer. In truth, he had already been told it was benign. He chose the 1963 Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool to make his announcement.

In 1963, there was no democratic mechanism for electing Conservative leaders. Leaders emerged after “consultations” amongst the Parliamentarians. As representatives gathered in Blackpool on Wednesday 9th October, news circulated that the Prime Minster had been rushed to hospital for an emergency operation.

It was not until late on Thursday afternoon that the conference was addressed by Lord Home and a letter of resignation from Macmillan was read out stating “it will not be possible for me to carry the physical burden of leading the party.” The conference became immediately pre-occupied with the search for a successor.

The first out of the trap was Lord Hailsham. The former Mr. Quintin Hogg had been pre-booked to address a gathering of the Conservative Political Centre on Thursday evening but decided to end his lecture with the announcement that he intended to renounce his hereditary peerage. The audience immediately understood that he had decided to enter the leadership race. Applause filled the room and by the end of the evening, journalists noted that “Q” badges (for “Quinton”) were being distributed by his supporters.

In the world of 1963, this sort of thing was regarded as far too brash. Hailsham was accused of turning the Party Conference into a vulgar “American nominating convention”. It is alleged that Macmillan favoured his candidature initially, but the last straw came when Hailsham was spotted feeding his infant daughter baby food in the reception area of the Imperial Hotel. Hailsham was eliminated from further consideration.

The other potential inheritors of the Leadership mantle were R.A. Butler, Lord Home, and Reginald Maudling. Butler, then Deputy Prime Minster and a former Education Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, seemed to be the obvious choice to fill Macmillan’s shoes. Bookmakers offered 6-4 odds on his succession.

However, memories of his time as a Foreign Office Minister from 1938 to 1941 left a bitter taste. Not only was he associated with making the closing speech in the 1938 Parliamentary debate on the Munich Agreement, but, much worse, he was remembered for a clandestine and unauthorised meeting with Bjorn Prytz, the Swedish envoy to London, in June 1940 to discuss a compromise peace with Germany. Not that Butler was the only candidate tarnished by appeasement associations, as Home had been Chamberlain’s P.P.S. and Hailsham had first been elected at the Oxford by-election in 1938, where he defended the Munich settlement.

Home, as Foreign Secretary, was the first of the contestants to address the conference on Friday morning. Distinguished and self-assured, he even made a little joke about the on-going speculation “I am offering a prize to any newspaperman this morning who can find a clue in my speech that this is Lord Home’s bid to take over the leadership of the Conservative Party.” The speech went down well, and he left the platform with applause ringing in his ears.

The next candidate to speak was Reginald Maudling, Macmillan’s loose-spending fourth Chancellor. As he rose to his feet to address the hall, his friend and supporter Iain Macleod whispered in his ear “Go on Reggie, this is your chance!” Maudling then proceeded to deliver his speech in a dreary monotone that elicited few claps. Journalist Bernard Levin said of his contribution “if not the dullest speech in history, it would do until the dullest was made.” That was the end of his candidature.

Finally, at 2.15pm on conference’s last day, Butler took Macmillan’s place to make the traditional closing speech. The BBC considered the event so important that they interrupted Grandstand to televise it. Unfortunately, it was another damp squib. Years later, Butler remarked that he was haunted by a headline in a Sunday newspaper the following day: “Butler fails to rouse Tories”.

The Queen visited Macmillan at the King Edward VII Hospital on 18th October, and he made his recommendation. The following day Home was invited to form a government. Only two Conservative frontbenchers, Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod, refused to return to the Cabinet in protest at the way the selection had been conducted. However, their point had been noted and the next contest in 1965 would be conducted through a ballot of Members of Parliament.

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