Christmas is coming. It’s dark and cold outside. Activity winds down. It is a time for reflection and entertainment. So what better time to have a two-part political miscellany. Of sorts.
Here is the first that answers that nagging question: How long after entering the House of Commons did it take for an MP to become leader of their party?
There are interesting observations to be made.
For the period 2010-2015, the leaders of the UK’s two major parties were people with the least experience as MPs before becoming leader in post-war history. Some on the list here spent time outside Parliament after first winning a seat, including Churchill from 1922-24. I am rounding the years to make things simple.
For leaders who became PM:
Churchill – elected 1900, leader 1940 – 40 years. Cometh the hour, the man was there. For this we can all be grateful.
Atlee – elected 1922, leader 1935 – 13 years
Eden – elected 1923, leader 1955 – 32 years
Macmillan – elected 1931, leader 1957 – 26 years
Home – elected 1931, leader 1963 – 32 years – He inherited a peerage in 1951 and disclaimed it using new legislation that had allowed Tony Benn to remain in the Commons.
Wilson – elected 1945, leader 1963 – 18 years – Wilson’s thirteen years as party leader may have precluded any MP from the 1951, 1955, 1959, 1964 and 1966 intake becoming leader themselves.
Heath – elected 1950, leader 1965 – 15 years
Callaghan – elected 1945, leader 1976 – 31 years – a very patient man, was willing to wait for Wilson to go with minimal fuss in the meantime, compared to Gordon Brown.
Thatcher – elected 1959, leader 1975 – 16 years – The Conservatives produced no leader elected in the 1960s. This may have been because of Thatcher’s longevity as leader, 15 years. The scourge of grey squirrels, Michael Heseltine, was elected in 1966. Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s nemesis, was first elected in 1964.
Major – elected 1979, leader 1990 – 11 years
Blair – elected 1983, leader 1994 – 11 years
Brown – elected 1983, leader 2007 – 24 years – A long wait, but not very patient about it at all for the last decade.
Cameron – elected 2001, leader 2005 – 4 years – shortest on record. Promoted by Howard in 2005 who surely deserves some credit for spotting winners.
May – elected 1997, leader 2016 – 19 years
For leaders of the opposition who never became PM:
Gaitskell – elected 1945, leader 1955 – 10 years
Foot – elected 1945, leader 1980 – 35 years – the second longest. There was no world war, although there was a civil war in Labour in the 1950s, so that might count. Had Healey become leader instead he would also have been the second longest. The other contenders, Silkin and Shore, had been elected in 1963 and 1964 respectively. It is curious that Labour produced no leader that came from any general election for the quarter-century between 1945 and 1970. See Wilson for a possible explanation.
Kinnock – elected 1970, leader 1983 – 13 years
Smith – elected 1970, leader 1992 – 22 years
Hague – elected 1989, leader 1997 – 8 years – the third shortest after Cameron and Miliband.
Duncan Smith (IDS) – elected 1992, leader 2001 – 9 years
Howard – elected 1983, leader 2003 – 20 years
Miliband – elected 2005, leader 2010 – 5 years – the second shortest on record. Labour taking a cue from Cameron? Unlike Cameron, Miliband had ministerial experience.
Corbyn – elected 1983, leader 2015 – 32 years – the third longest, a three-way tie with Eden and Macmillan, who both went on to become PM, but in their case Baldwin’s long leadership and WWII had intervened. In Corbyn’s case it may be the whimpering end of the Cold War and consequent discrediting of hard-left politics that forced Labour to shift to the right for two-plus decades that kept him from any position. Or it could be a serious lack of ability. Now there is a generation of voters who have probably never heard of the Berlin Wall and have no idea about communism. Labour might be betting this public ignorance stays that way. If only there was a TV producer willing to create a documentary series on the history of communism and the damage it inflicted on mankind instead of doing just another by-the-numbers history of the Nazis. If only.
Also it seems that 1931(2, both Tory PMs), 1945(4, all Labour, 2 PMs), 1970(2, both Labour opposition) and 1983(4, two Labour PMs, 2 Opposition leaders, 1 of each) are the years in which the most future leaders were elected. Only 1970 was not a landslide election. 1945 is an obvious one, there had not been a general election since 1935 and there had been a war, which also thinned out the potential of pre-war elections to produce future leaders. 1983 was another bumper year. The Tory landslide year yielded 2 Labour PMs when there were fewer Labour MPs returned. And those two future PMs shared one office in 1983, eventually.
It is curious that the 1951, 1955, 1964, 1966, 1974 (I & II) and 1987 postwar general elections produced no future leaders of the two major parties. Any contenders elected in these years may have had to face a well-established leader and a rigid and increasing queue of successors.
Although Cameron and Miliband had the least time as MPs before taking their top spots, both of them had extensive political experience beforehand. Miliband was a form of socialist royalty, a Labour Prince, who had been in the inner circle of left-wing politics from childhood due to his father’s prominence in socialist thought. He also worked for Gordon Brown before becoming an MP.
Cameron worked for the Conservative Party after leaving Eton. He can be spotted wandering in the background when his boss Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont was announcing Britain’s exit from the European Exchange Rate mechanism in September 1992, some thirteen years before Cameron became party leader and nine years before he became an MP. The light that shines twice as bright burns half as long. Few people, if any, would have believed at the beginning of 2016 that Cameron would not only not be PM by the end, but also not even be in Parliament. High office was the object of his career and he had six years as First Lord of the Treasury before his fiftieth birthday. This is an achievement of a very talented man.
A good rule of the thumb seems to be that people tend to become leader after their first decade in the House. Leaders who are at the top for a long time prevent others who enter Parliament at succeeding elections to when they themselves first entered Parliament from making it to the top of the greasy pole as the queue of contenders gets longer and the competition gets thinned out by the natural wastage of politics. But there does not appear to be an obvious pattern. Unless the reader can find one. Something to do on the long winter nights.