Let's play follow the leader
The last politician I recall protesting like Education Secretary Michael Gove that he did not want the party leadership was Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Yes, that's right, the man who went on grab the job in 1962 in the wake of the Tory conference.
His somewhat strange rise to power was a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences (a topic I am including in my next book).
The struggle for the top job started at the outset of the conference when Harold Macmillan announced his resignation from his sick bed, where he was awaiting a prostate operation.
Blackpool, and in particular the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, became a centre for Byzantine intrigue by the supporters of the three obvious candidates. There was Lord Hailsham, aka Quintin Hogg when he disclaimed his peerage. There was also Chancellor Reggie Maudling, at that time regularly seen as a promising candidate for the top job at some later date. Above all there was deputy premier RA Butler, aka Rab.
True there was, or might be, the Foreign Secretary, the 14th Earl Home. But he was a complete outsider. And he told inquiring journalists that he was not really interested. But according to Iain Macleod, Leader of the House of Commons — and dubbed by Lord Salisbury as too clever by half — Home was very much in the running and had to be taken seriously.
It was hard to see why. Should the modernised Tory Party really be looking to the upper House for a leader? But Home's name had touched off a wave of support in the constituencies, according to Macleod. Besides... good foreign secretary, y'know... nice chap... no enemies (deemed a plus by the less worldly).
He took certain journalists aside to air his view, most notably my then colleague Harry Boyne, The Daily Telegraph's political correspondent. Harry was puzzled. Macleod was a known supporter of Rab, so much so that he later refused to serve under Home when he emerged winner of what became an unseemly contest.
However, Macleod was a senior Tory and what he thought should be reported, anonymously of course. And The Telegraph carried a lot of weight. The constituency members were excited to learn that Home was a real possibility. Here was a rich 14th Earl entering the lists to save a plainly divided and ill-tempered party. It was like something out of a Disraeli novel. But the problem for Macleod was that though he still backed Rab, he could not stop the momentum of the "send for his Lordship" campaign when it got started. The struggle became a straight Home vs Rab contest. Macmillan stirred the intrigue from his hospital bed, being set on blighting the chances of Rab, whom he had long hated. At length, the struggle culminated in the famous meeting in Enoch Powell's home still littered by balloons left over from his younger daughter's birthday party.
Enoch, Macleod and more conditionally Maudling, told the Chief Whip that they would not serve under Alec, who had by that time received the Commission from the Queen, on the advice of Macmillan, to see if he could form a government.
Their refusal to serve was conditional on Rab also refusing the offer he was bound to get from Home. Rab havered, consulting his conscience and probably his wife, who was not keen on No 10. When Home offered him the Foreign Office the next day, he accepted. Powell and Macleod refused to serve.
Maudling accepted after first checking with his two colleagues that his pledge was inactive once Rab accepted office. So Alec the Unexpected became Prime Minister.
Harry Boyne was later to observe ruefully that he was to blame for Home's victory.
Lessons might be learned. One – do not start a campaign you cannot control. Two – treat with disbelief all protestations by a politician that he would never accept the top job. Three – avoid being too clever by half.