The British system rests so much power in its prime minister that the holder of the office often changes the course of the nation’s history. If Edward Heath had fended off Margaret Thatcher’s challenge to his leadership in 1976 – and he might well have done – Britain would be a different place today. So I have selected the ten politicians who, in the 20th century, came closest to the office without ever actually attaining it. Then, I tried to explore how things would have turned out under their leadership.
Most of my choices narrowly failed to become party leader when their party was in power or on the brink of power. Two died early and unexpectedly, and had they lived, would almost certainly have become prime minister. One, Neil Kinnock, came desperately close to winning a general election. Simply fighting an election as opposition leader is not enough though: so goodbye Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury, William Hague, and Michael Howard.
There are several popular candidates for “best PM we never had,” like Denis Healey, who never quite got within touching distance of the job. If I had room for an eleventh nearly man, it would probably be Lord Curzon. Since the Conservative Party, until recently, did not elect its leader, there are no figures to go on, but I have taken the arbitrary decision that Curzon did not come as close to Baldwin in 1923 as Halifax came to Churchill in 1940, or Butler to Macmillan in 1957. If Gordon Brown’s career were over, I would have to evict one of my ten to make room for him. But his grim determination to make himself ineligible for my list has at last been rewarded.
Dumped for pro-coalition views
Austen Chamberlain (1863–1937), son of Joseph Chamberlain and elder half-brother of Neville, was chancellor of the exchequer and foreign secretary. In 1922, when he was Conservative leader, his party decided to bring down Liberal PM Lloyd George’s coalition government, against Chamberlain’s advice. Chamberlain’s pro-coalition views made his continued leadership unacceptable to his party, which called on Andrew Bonar Law, despite his illness, to take his place. So Law, not Chamberlain, became PM, resigning after six months, to be replaced by Stanley Baldwin.
What if Austen Chamberlain had become prime minister in 1922?
Chamberlain’s Chancellor, Baldwin, thinks the government should call a general election in 1923 because it has changed its mind on free trade. Baldwin also believes that Labour must one day have its chance at government; and he loathes Lloyd George and thinks a 1923 election would “dish the goat”. But Chamberlain does not agree, and his government lasts its full term until 1927. By then the post war enthusiasm for Labour has faded, former Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith is terminally ill, and Lloyd George is able to present a more or less united Liberal challenge and remain the official opposition. Labour’s chance has to wait until the end of the Second World War. Chamberlain remains in office until 1936, and is succeeded by his foreign secretary, Winston Churchill. He and Churchill have been rearming since 1931; consequently Britain declares war on Germany when Hitler annexes Austria in 1936.
Missed job due to lost taxi?
JR Clynes (1869–1949), was leader of the house of commons in Ramsay Macdonald’s first Labour government, and home secretary in Macdonald’s second. But he nearly occupied Macdonald’s position. Returned as an MP in 1918, he became vice chairman of the parliamentary party, and chairman from 1921 to 1922, when he lost the post to Macdonald by 61 votes to 56. It is said that Macdonald owed his victory to a group of Clynes supporters being in a taxi that lost its way to Westminster; and certainly several Clynes supporters failed to turn up, believing their man’s victory was in the bag. So Macdonald became PM in 1924.
What if JR Clynes had become prime minister in 1924?
Clynes’s 1924 minority government falls the same year and is replaced by a Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin from 1924 to 1929. But in 1929 Labour is the biggest single party, and for radical measures to deal with unemployment, it could, and does, rely on Liberal votes. Macdonald feels Clynes’s measures are reckless, but as foreign secretary he is allowed little say in domestic matter. Clynes wavers briefly at the time of the financial crisis of 1931, but as an old trade unionist he listens to the TUC and devalues the pound rather than agree to the terms for a loan dictated by an American bank. The government lasts its full term until 1934, but after 1931 its reforms are curtailed by economic conditions, and in 1934 it is again defeated by Baldwin’s Conservatives.
Lukewarm about being PM
Edward Wood, Earl of Halifax (1881–1959) became foreign secretary under Neville Chamberlain, and was Chamberlain’s preferred candidate to succeed him in 1940. It was Halifax’s reluctance to take on the job that propelled Winston Churchill into 10 Downing Street.
Halifax supported Chamberlain’s appeasement policies. As foreign secretary he met Hitler, and records in his diary that he told him: “Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement… of keeping Communism out of his country”. He pressed for peace feelers to be put out in summer 1940.
What if Lord Halifax had become prime minister in 1940??
He forms a coalition with Labour. But in June 1940, when the French ask for an armistice with Germany, Halifax proposes to the cabinet that Hitler’s peace terms be explored. The proposal is blocked by Churchill, the defence minister, and Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. But stories of cabinet uncertainty and a sharp decline in civilian morale reach Hitler, who decides not to cancel his invasion of Britain.
Once German troops reach British soil, Churchill orders the Navy to sail for the USA. Halifax, unable even now to persuade his cabinet to seek peace, resigns in favour of Churchill, who leads and inspires street by street resistance. German troops reach London in December. Churchill, spirited out by the American ambassador on President Roosevelt’s orders, leads a government in exile in Washington, while Hitler installs a puppet government under the Marquis of Tavistock. In December 1940, Germany attacks the Soviet Union and, simultaneously, Japan bombs Pearl Harbour, leading to renewed world war.
Lost his seat in Parliament
Herbert Morrison (1888–1965) was home secretary, deputy prime minister, leader of the House of Commons, and foreign secretary. But if he had not lost his seat in Parliament in 1931, and been out of the House of Commons until 1935, he might well have defeated Clement Attlee for the Labour leadership in 1935. Had he done so, then he, not Attlee, would have become prime minister in 1945. Morrison himself always believed he ought to be leader, and after the 1945 election result was declared, he mounted an unsuccessful coup against Attlee.
Morrison was concerned in 1945 that Labour’s welfare plans were too ambitious for Britain’s war-ravaged economy, and by the early 1950s he was calling for Labour to “modernise” itself. He and Labour’s left – those who became the Bevanites – loathed each other.
What if Herbert Morrison had become prime minister in 1945?
Newspapers express grudging praise for his “courageous decision” to brave the wrath of the left by leaving Aneurin Bevan out of his government. When the USA unexpectedly ends lend-lease in 1945, Morrison declares that Labour’s plans for raising the school leaving age to 15, providing education for all, a health service free at the point of use, and comprehensive welfare payments, are on hold until the economy recovers. Within two years, the young Turks of Labour’s new 1945 intake are in open revolt, led by Bevan. By 1950 Labour is irrevocably split, and loses the general election heavily.
Under fire over Suez doubts
RA (Rab) Butler (1902–82) was home secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, and foreign secretary. He was the frontrunner to replace Anthony Eden in 1957, but his cabinet colleagues preferred Harold Macmillan. When Macmillan resigned in 1963, Butler was again the frontrunner, but Macmillan advised the queen to send for Lord Home.
Macmillan was preferred in 1957 partly because, unlike Butler, he had wholeheartedly supported the disastrous Suez invasion that caused Eden’s resignation. Butler was a left-wing Tory who supported the welfare state and was responsible for the 1944 Education Act.
What if Rab Butler had become prime minister in 1957?
Butler’s “betrayal” over Suez brings him hostility and suspicion from the right, led by the Tory grandee Lord Salisbury. He retains Selwyn Lloyd as foreign secretary on the same grounds as Macmillan would have done – the desire not to offer the Americans a second scalp to go with Eden’s. But it means that neither PM nor Foreign Secretary has friends in Washington – unlike Macmillan, who is an old ally of President Eisenhower. Butler is unable to regain the trust of the Americans, leading to economic problems, and comes under fire at home for appearing to want to dismantle the empire. His divided party is defeated at the 1960 general election and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell becomes prime minister, to face an immediate crisis in Africa.
What if Rab Butler had become prime minister in 1963?
Opinion polls take an immediate leap, for Butler, a left-winger of the middle classes, looks like a new broom after the patrician Macmillan and his upper crust foreign secretary, Lord Home. Home is demoted, and a young grammar school boy, Ted Heath, appointed in his place. Butler wins the 1964 election. Harold Wilson is forced out as Labour leader, and Anthony Crosland elected to replace him.
‘Suspicious’ death at 56
Hugh Gaitskell (1906–63) became Clement Attlee’s last Chancellor of the Exchequer, and when Attlee resigned as Labour leader in 1955, Gaitskell was elected to replace him. His illness and death in 1963 at the age of only 56 was so sudden and unexpected that there was a strong, but unfounded, rumour that he had been poisoned. Gaitskell was on the right of the Labour Party where Wilson was on the left, and was a doctrinaire opponent of entry into the European Common Market.
What if Hugh Gaitskell had lived to fight and win the 1964 election?
Labour’s majority of four makes governing difficult. Gaitskell finds himself increasingly at odds with his Chancellor, Harold Wilson, and reliant on the unstable and frequently drunk foreign secretary, George Brown. After six months, against Wilson’s advice, he calls another general election, increasing his majority to a workable 20. Two huge, and related, issues divide him from Wilson. First, Wilson is starting to move cautiously towards the idea of joining the Common Market. Second, Gaitskell, believing the transatlantic relationship to be at the heart of British foreign policy, wants to agree to President Johnson’s pressing demands for Britain to send a token force to Vietnam. In 1968, Wilson resigns, becoming a hero to the left and the students, and Labour falls to defeat to the Conservatives under Ted Heath in 1969. Wilson suffers the fate of political assassins: when Gaitskell is forced out in 1971, aged 66, he is replaced by James Callaghan.
Final ballot hopes dashed
Michael Foot (1913–) was employment secretary, then leader of the House of Commons, under Harold Wilson, and became Labour leader in 1980, leading the party to its worst electoral defeat since 1931 in 1983. His claim to a place as one of the “nearly men” does not rest on the 1983 election, which he had no chance of winning. But when Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister in 1976, Foot won the first ballot, with 90 votes to Callaghan’s 84. As other candidates were eliminated, and their votes mostly went to Callaghan, Foot lost in the final ballot, by 176 to 137.
What if Michael Foot had become prime minister in 1976?
In autumn 1978, the most powerful trade union leader in Britain, Foot’s friend Jack Jones, tells him that the deal with the unions will not last the winter, and predicts a “winter of discontent”. Against Jim Callaghan’s advice, Foot calls a snap general election, which produces a narrow Labour victory. But strikes over the winter put the Conservatives ahead in the polls until Argentina invades the Falkland Islands in 1982. Foot grows in stature as a war leader, and newspapers remember his stirring speeches during the Second World War. The Falklands win the 1983 election for Foot. But he has a wafer-thin parliamentary majority and a fractious parliamentary party in which a strong far left, led by Tony Benn, believes he has compromised Labour’s principles. Meanwhile the Conservatives blame their leader’s extremism for their two successive defeats and move to unseat her. The year after the election, Conservatives and Bennites unite to bring down Foot’s government. Under a new leader pledged to avoid “cranky ideologies” like monetarism, the Conservatives win the 1984 election and Michael Heseltine becomes prime minister.
Stymied by Thatcher’s parting shot
Michael Heseltine (1933–) rose to be secretary for the environment and then secretary for defence under Margaret Thatcher, and president of the Board of Trade and secretary for trade and industry, then deputy prime minister, under John Major. But he might have been prime minister instead of Major. He was seen as Thatcher’s strongest rival and initiated a challenge to her leadership in 1990, coming so close to beating her that she was forced to resign. He was widely expected to win the leadership election which followed, but Thatcher persuaded her supporters to vote for John Major, who defeated Heseltine by 185 votes to 131.
What if Michael Heseltine had become prime minister in 1990?
A popular and charismatic figure who avoids Thatcher’s ideologies, Heseltine rapidly turns around the dire position in the polls which he inherited, leading his Party to a landslide victory in 1992. He not only abolishes the poll tax, but removes Thatcherite ministers, jettisons her economic policies, and embraces the European Community. Dissenters have the Conservative whip withdrawn. But there are so many dissenters that Heseltine loses his overall majority, and they combine with Labour to bring down his government in 1995. Fortunately for Heseltine, his policies have split the Labour Party: the dominant Blair-Brown faction is seen by the left as far worse than Heseltine. So Heseltine wins the ensuing general election.
Victim of the tabloid press
Neil Kinnock (1942–) turned down James Callaghan’s offer of junior posts in his government, and was therefore entirely without ministerial experience when he became Labour leader in 1983, though he has subsequently served as vice president of the European Commission. He comfortably lost the 1987 general election, but almost won in 1992. Opinion polls were going Labour’s way right up to polling day. An ill-judged triumphalist rally in Sheffield, the unexpected effectiveness of Conservative leader John Major as a soap box orator, a relentless campaign by the tabloid press, and a shadow budget which created fears of tax increases, are variously credited with giving Major an overall majority of 21.
What if Neil Kinnock had become prime minister in 1992?
Kinnock’s government is swiftly blown off course by the financial crisis of September 1992, when the pound is forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism; but at least the Conservatives could not claim to have done better, since both parties had insisted that devaluation was not an option. When the dust settles, it becomes clear that there is spare cash to make a start on Labour’s programme. The government ploughs money into the nationalised rail system, and by the time of the next election in 1997 it could claim, if nothing else, that it had made the trains run on time. With the Conservatives convulsed over Europe, Kinnock wins a second term.
Early death for ‘certain’ PM
John Smith (1938–94) rose to be trade secretary under James Callaghan, and was elected Labour leader after Labour’s 1992 election defeat. He would certainly have led Labour to victory at the 1997 election if he had not died suddenly in 1994 of a heart attack, aged only 55.
What if John Smith had lived to win the 1997 general election?
Smith’s 99-seat majority in June 1997 silences his critics, though the so-called modernisers claim it could have been twice as big if their prescriptions had been adopted. John Smith cancels plans to build a vast round shed in Greenwich, south London, which the Conservatives had planned as a symbol for the Millennium. The new Conservative leader Michael Portillo, who had only narrowly kept his own seat in Parliament, leads his party sharply leftwards, even talking about something called a “Third Way.” Smith tells Home Secretary Tony Blair to lead the attack on this idea, and Blair calls the Third Way “vacuous.” Chancellor Gordon Brown is persuaded, against his own instincts, to agree to “hypothecation” – earmarking certain taxes for schools and hospitals. After winning the 2001 general election with a reduced majority, Smith tells only one colleague – Gordon Brown – about his intention of retiring on his 63rd birthday, which is to be 13 September 2001. Two days before this day comes the attack on the World Trade Centre, and Smith decides he cannot leave his post. He refuses to support US military action in the Middle East without a UN mandate. Relations with President George Bush take a sharp downturn: Bush sees in the prime minister all the vices he attributes to louche, pinkish Europeans. Smith eventually resigns when he is 65, in 2003, and the next year new PM Gordon Brown is able to mend the Atlantic alliance by creating a new relationship with the newly-elected US President Kerry.
This article was first published in the July 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine