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Conference Showdown: The 1963 Conservative Party Conference

(Alamy)

4 min read

Things may not be entirely rosy for the Conservatives, but at least this year’s conference won’t be the setting for a leadership contest. Patrick Kidd takes us back to an even more fraught time in the party’s history

It is a year before a general election and the prime minister is 19 points behind his Labour opponent in the polls. The French leader taunts him over Britain’s standing in Europe, he has just lost a key member of his cabinet in a sex scandal and on the first day of his party conference in Blackpool someone drowns. What’s more, the PM feels decidedly unwell. No matter how gloomy things seem for Rishi Sunak, it was much worse for Harold Macmillan in 1963.

Lord Dilhorne was leaning over to get a drink and had a badge pinned to his rump

Sixty years ago, change was in the air. Harold Wilson spoke of the “white heat” of the Labour revolution he was planning, Jo Grimond ordered his Liberal troops to “march towards the gunfire” and the Tory conference began on 9 October with the prime minister back in London awaiting prostate surgery. Jonathan Aitken, a future cabinet minister but then a 21-year-old student at Oxford, was driving to the conference with his godfather, the former chancellor Selwyn Lloyd, when they heard the news of Macmillan’s health on the car radio.

Aitken told The House that they arrived in Blackpool to find a leadership contest in full swing. Though Rab Butler, the deputy prime minister, had moved into the leader’s hotel suite, the frontrunner with party members was Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, who was eligible to stand after the recent Peerage Act let him disclaim his title. When news came on the second day that Macmillan would be standing down, via a letter read to the hall by Alec Douglas-Home, the foreign secretary and another newly selectable peer, the conference took on the air of an American political convention.

“Randolph Churchill somehow manufactured badges with ‘Q’ on them and was dashing round bars distributing them,” Aitken recalled. “It was like a comic farce. Lord Dilhorne [the lord chancellor] was leaning over to get a drink and had a badge pinned to his rump. There was a loud scream of both pain and indignation that he should back Hailsham.”

However, the popular choice with associations was felt to be too divisive and erratic by the “men in suits”, while Butler was, in the words of Gerald Nabarro, a Tory MP, “donnish, dignified and dull”.

Reginald Maudling was fancied but felt to be too callow at 46, while Edward Heath and Iain Macleod had supporters. To escape the frenzy, Lloyd went for a coastal walk with Martin Redmayne, the chief whip.

His godson came too. “You can trust him, he’s like a clam,” Lloyd said.

On the walk to Fylde, it became clear that Home was emerging as their favourite. “Redmayne had taken soundings with the back benchers and they liked him,” Aitken said. “They found him charming and impeccable.” They met and chatted to a pensioner at a stile, who told them that Home would be welcomed by his friends. “It felt like the oracle of truth,” Aitken said. Home solidified his position with “a gem of a speech”, while Butler’s closing oratory was thought to be pedestrian. Many still wanted Hailsham, but he lost some support after giving his infant daughter a feed in the hotel lobby; that was nanny’s job.

As the conference split up, and thinking he had a scoop, Aitken went to see his great-uncle, Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, and told him the Tories would choose Home. “The sea air has affected your brains, you’re talking balls,” the proprietor said. His editor was also unimpressed. Six days later, Home was summoned to see the Queen and asked if he could form a government. At least Aitken had followed his instinct. “I put a tenner [£220 at today’s value] on Home at 8-1,” he said. “That bought a lot of dinners back in Oxford.” 

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