Tomorrow the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Theresa May will be the country’s second female Prime Minister and the thirteenth Prime Minister of the reign of current Queen Elizabeth (hope she is not superstitious). May of course has become Prime Minister without winning a General Election. Surprisingly May is the seventh post war Prime Minister to gain power without winning a General Election. Labour and the Lib Dems predictably have called for a General Election but there is no obligation for a Prime Minister appointed in the circumstances that May has been appointed to call a General Election and in any case the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – which the Lib Dems supported!- means there cannot be an election unless two thirds of MPs vote in favour of it which means both Labour and Conservative MPs would have to back an election which is highly unlikely.
So it looks like the next UK General Election will be held as planned on May 7th 2020. But will Theresa May get her own mandate then? UK politics is totally unpredictable at the moment so it is impossible to say. So I thought I would look at the other six people who became Prime Minister without winning a General Election. Did they go on to win their own mandate at the next election? Let’s just say the omens for Theresa May are very mixed.
The first man to become Prime Minister without winning a General Election was Sir Anthony Eden who succeeded Sir Winston Churchill in 1955. He is the only Prime Minister of the six who called a “snap” General Election after becoming Prime Minister*. He became Prime Minister in April 1955 and the election was on May 26th. The Conservative majority increased from 17 to 60. Eden’s honeymoon did not last long however and the ill fated Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956 led to his resignation on 10th January 1957.
He was succeeded by Harold Macmillan who unlike Eden did not go to the country immediately. Instead he waited until October 1959 when on the slogan “You’ve never had it so good” the Conservatives further increased their majority to 100. But Macmillan like Churchill and Eden did not complete his term. The infamous Profuno affair when the Secretary of State for War** John Profuno admitted lying to Parliament when he said he had not had an affair with a prostitute when in fact he had. The scandal nearly brought down the government and Macmillan resigned due to ill health.
He was succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Now this was weird. First of all he was elected by nobody as in those days the Conservative leader “emerged” rather than being elected. Secondly Home was not even an MP at the time. He was a hereditary peer a member of the House of Lords with the title of the 14th Earl of Home. He had to win a by election in the safe Conservative seat of Kinross and West Perthshire to get into the House of Commons since the Prime Minister has to be an MP. In an era dominated by young pop groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones having an Earl as Prime Minister was seen as an “elegant anachronism”. Labour won the 1964 General Election but only by a majority of four seats. The Nuffield study of the election (page 146) said “When all was over, some Conservatives were willing to say privately that Sir Alec Douglas-Home cost them the election”. Since the Conservatives still nearly won the election it is quite possible that a leader more in touch with sixties Britain might have won. But they still lost and Home is the shortest serving UK Prime Minister since the war at just less than a year.
The next man to become Prime Minister without winning a General Election was James Callaghan in 1976. He inherited a government with no majority and an economic mess but had he gone to the country in October 1978 he might have won. But he delayed the decision and the infamous winter of discontent in 1978-79 when the dead went unburied and the rubbish went uncollected turned the country against Labour and although Callaghan was more popular than Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher the Conservatives won a majority of 43. His decision not to call an election in 1978 was a dreadful mistake. Had he done so Margaret Thatcher could have been a footnote in history instead of a three time election winner.
Thatcher stayed Prime Minister until 1990 when Michael Heseltine challenged her for the Conservative leadership. Although Thatcher got more votes than Heseltine she did not get the number of votes she needed and resigned. She was not succeed by Heseltine but by John Major. Major was behind in the polls for most of the time before the 1992 General Election but fear of change brought Major a shock victory with a 21 seat majority. He might have wished he hadn’t bothered as his 1992-97 government was a total shambles the party was split in two and eventually crashed to a landslide defeat by Tony Blair ‘s Labour Party in the 1997 General Election.
The last person before Theresa May to become Prime Minister without winning a General Election was Gordon Brown in 2007. In fact Brown like Douglas-Home did not even win a leadership election as he was elected by the Labour Party unopposed. Brown was immediately faced with a dilemma. During his honeymoon period Labour soared in the polls and a lot of Labour MPs wanted him to call a “snap” General Election. After weeks of umming and aahing he decided not to call an election. He must have wished he had as in 2008 the economic crash occurred and the next year the MPs expenses scandal added to Brown’s unpopularity. In the end he actually did well to deny the Conservatives an overall majority but like Callaghan in 1978 had he called an election in 2007 the political history of the UK might have changed forever.
So judging by history Theresa May has a 50-50 chance of winning her own mandate in 2020. How she delivers Brexit and how she can keep her party united will probably be a key factor but with the current unpredictable state of British politics who would dare bet on the 2020 result?
*Prior to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act the only rule was that a Parliament could not last more than five years. But a Prime Minister could call an election at any time he/she wanted to. As an example there were two General Elections in 1974.
**Sums up the mentality of the UK at the time that the position of Secretary of State for War existed. It did not last much longer. On April 1st 1964 the post – along with those of First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for Air – was abolished.