Richard Kelly is Head of Politics at Manchester Grammar School and author of Conservative Party Conferences: The Hidden System.
Studies of the Conservative Party provide two clichés about its internal organisation. The first is that, though they have greater autonomy than their Labour counterparts, Tory leaders are much more likely to be dumped by their party. As Robert McKenzie wrote, in his seminal analysis of British Political Parties: “The Conservative leader leads, and the party follows, until the party refuses to follow… at which point the leader ceases to be leader”.
The second cliché is that, when faced with a discredited leader, it is Tory MPs who are the party’s callous assassins, particularly the “men in grey suits” from the 1922 Committee. By contrast, Tory constituency members are seen as the leader’s diehard troops – “simple souls”, as Lord Kilmuir once called them, embodying his claim that loyalty was the party’s “secret weapon”. The survival of these clichés owes much to the dethronement of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and, to a lesser extent, Ted Heath in 1975. But were also referenced ahead of yesterday’s National Convention.
However, when we take a longer look at the party’s history, and specifically the ousting of its leaders, two alternative notions arise. The first is that the marginalisation of Conservative activists is not a perennial feature. The second is that the sternest, and most decisive, critique of Tory leaders has often come from Tory volunteers rather than Tory MPs. In both respects, it is useful to compare May with two other Tory leaders who threatened the party’s survival: Arthur Balfour and Austen Chamberlain.
Balfour’s accession to the leadership and premiership in 1902 was not simply a case of “Bob’s your uncle” (a reference to Balfour being the nephew of previous Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury). It had more to do with Balfour’s track record – a decent if unspectacular decade as Leader of the Commons – and the fact no-one could be bothered to challenge him (the refusal of Balfour’s charismatic rival, Joseph Chamberlain, being especially significant).
But it soon became clear that Balfour was ill-suited to the top job. By the start of 1903, he was routinely accused of indecision and vagueness over the key issue dividing his party: free trade or tariff reform. Yet, instead of acting to end the impasse, Conservative MPs seemed paralysed by it. For the next two years, Balfour was left to practise endless triangulations of the free trade/ tariff reform dispute, redolent of May’s own attempt to placate both Leavers and Remainers.
Frustrated by the obtuseness of Balfour’s policy, and by the failure of their MPs to improve it, Tory activists took matters into their own hands at the party conference of 1903. Even though he once said he would prefer the advice of his valet to that of a Tory conference, Balfour was forced to acknowledge a resolution that strongly favoured tariff reform, and which expressed ‘dismay’ at the ‘drift in our government’s position’.
Yet the drift continued. At the 1904 and 1905 conferences, Conservative volunteers again protested, only for this to be followed by more inertia among Tory MPs. Eventually, Balfour’s government collapsed and the Tories were annihilated at the 1906 general election.
Following her general election disaster in 2017, many were surprised that Conservative MPs excused May’s decision not to resign. But such conceit and complacency were not unprecedented. Following the Liberal landslide of 1906, in which the Tories lost 250 seats, Balfour briskly announced he would carry on as leader and duly did so – Tory MPs proving too gutless or witless to organise a vote of no-confidence. Despite protests at the Conservative conferences of 1906 to 1909, the party stayed rudderless and predictably lost twice in the general elections of 1910.
By 1911, however, Tory volunteers had learnt a lesson which their current successors might recognise: when faced with a calamitously stubborn leader, do not expect timely deliverance from Conservative MPs. Aided by the maverick backbencher Leo Maxse, a “Balfour Must Go” campaign was launched ahead of the party’s 1911 conference. Aware that angry activists were a tougher gig than supine MPs, Balfour at last resigned, just days before the conference started.
A decade later, grass-oot members were again obliged to save the party from destructive leadership. Between 1921 and 1922, Austen Chamberlain led a party increasingly unhappy with the post-war, Lib-Con coalition led by Lloyd-George. Yet, alarmed by the rising Labour Party, Chamberlain wanted the Tories to extend the coalition and formally merge with their Liberal partners. Rather like May’s “talks” with Labour, this proved the final straw for Conservative volunteers.
When recalling the fall of Austen Chamberlain, it is the famous Carlton Club meeting of October 1922, involving just Conservative MPs, that gets all the attention. Indeed, when discussing the fall of Tory leaders generally, this gathering is usually cited as the definitive example of “ruthless” Tory MPs dropping the pilot. But the reality was more complicated.
At the Carlton Club meeting, Tory MPs certainly voted against Chamberlain’s plan to fight the next general election as a coalition, and within three hours Chamberlain had resigned. Yet, prior to the meeting, most of them had been agnostic about Chamberlain’s coalition-ism, and only rebelled at the Carlton because of intense, mounting pressure from their constituency parties.
The day before the Carlton Club meeting, the voluntary party’s Executive Committee had summoned an emergency conference to discuss the coalition’s future, its fear being that the Carlton gathering would be “a sectional meeting, that would not represent the views of the party as a whole”. Chastened by the prospect of a grassroots eruption, plus news of the Newport by-election (won by a rogue, anti-coalition Tory), MPs at the Carlton Club finally acted. A few weeks later, a liberated Tory Party won the 1922 general election.
The background to the Carlton coup finds echoes in Theresa May’s own departure. On the one hand, her fate was sealed by a meeting with the 1922 Committee executive on 16 May, and hastened a week later by further complaints from Tory ministers and MPs – all of which conforms to the textbook view of how Tory leaders fall. Yet these developments only occurred after a grass-roots’ petition in April – tabled by 70 constituency chairmen and calling on the PM to “consider her position” – and ahead of an incendiary National Convention in June, one which threatened to lambast not just May but all those MPs who allowed her to continue. Once again, it took a mutinous rank and file to rouse an enervated parliamentary party.
Mindful of Balfour, Chamberlain and May, McKenzie’s British Political Parties needs a bit of revision. So in terms of power in the Tory party, try this for size: “The Tory leader leads, and the party follows, until the party refuses to follow… at which point Tory MPs dither, until grass-root members boot them into action and save the party from extinction”.