19 October 2023

Bring it Home – what Rishi Sunak can learn from Britain’s greatest post-war prime minister


60 years ago today, the late Queen kissed hands with Britain’s greatest post-war Prime Minister. Apologies to the Thatcher fanatics, condolences to the Blair groupies, and commiserations to the Attlee devotees. But Sir Alec Douglas-Home was undoubtedly the finest occupant of Number 10 since Winston Churchill – and an excellent role model for Rishi Sunak. 

Admittedly, my claims for the primacy of the erstwhile 14th Earl derives mostly from one particular fact – he was the only First Lord of the Treasury to have played first-class cricket. Described by Wisden as having been ‘a useful member of the Eton XI’ at school, he later represented Oxford, Middlesex, and the MCC. Appropriately for a politician, he was said to have played at his best on sticky wickets.

All of this would impress Sunak. The Prime Minister had hoped to spend his downtime after losing last Summer’s Conservative leadership contest trying to earn selection for the Kirby Sigston team in his constituency. But in addition to his sporting prowess, he could also learn from Douglas-Home’s sterling example of how best to lead the Tories at the fag end of 13 years of office, and how to act once out of it. 

There are obvious similarities between the pair. Both entered Number 10 after 12 years of Conservative rule. Both were characterised as out of touch: a Scottish aristocrat amid the satire boom against a Sotonian plutocrat in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Both also became Prime Minister in controversial circumstances – and much to the chagrin of some Tory loudmouths. 

When Harold Macmillan resigned unexpectedly in October 1963, it turned the concurrent party conference in Blackpool into an open jostle for the top job. With Quintin Hogg judged too gauche, Rab Butler too languid, and Reginald Maudling too dull, Douglas-Home emerged as the compromise candidate after a judicious sift of party opinion. But there was a problem: he was a peer. 

In a tediously democratic age, having a premier in the Lords was considered a little rum, since no one had governed from there since Lord Salisbury in 1902. Fortuitously, Tony Benn – temporarily Viscount Stansgate – had got an act passed earlier that year enabling Lords to disclaim their peerages. After two unconstitutional weeks outside both Houses, Douglas-Home became an MP via a by-election. 

The manner of Douglas-Home’s elevation left considerable ill-will. His appointment has been labelled the only mistake of her late Majesty’s reign. Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod – both supporters of Butler – refused to serve, with the latter penning an article for The Spectator blaming his elevation on an Etonian ‘Magic Circle’. Douglas-Home later blamed him for the narrow Tory defeat in October 1964.

Sunak would be sympathetic. Macleod was the Nadine Dorries of his day, lamenting the spurning of his chosen idol. But as Sunak’s elevation to the Conservative leadership last October was entirely within the rules, so was Douglas-Home’s. Alistair Lexden has highlighted how analysis of the informal process by which he was selected suggested he was, indeed, the choice of most Tory MPs. 

The Prime Minister can therefore take from his predecessor the importance of ignoring the chirping of various irreconcilables, and the need to get on with the job. Both Douglas-Home and he had inherited a country in a bit of a mess. For Brexit and Partygate read Suez and the Profumo scandal. Douglas-Home confronted high inflation and balance of trade problems, whilst Sunak is stalked by stagflation. 

In fairness, the two had rather different approaches to economics. Sunak is never happier than when facing a spreadsheet, whereas Douglas-Home once told an interviewer that he did his ‘sums with matchsticks’. Both are unlikely to resolve the major issues confronting the country by the time they face the voters. Similarly, Harold Wilson still had to devalue the pound and Keir Starmer will be constrained by high borrowing costs. 

Nonetheless, even if Douglas-Home’s example can’t teach Sunak how to escape his current fiscal bind, he does at least show the Prime Minister that his political situation isn’t hopeless. When he became Tory leader, polls had put his party as much as 21 points behind Labour. Within a year in office, Douglas-Home narrowed that to only an 0.7 lead, and a Labour majority of 4, in the 1964 general election.  

Sunak has already had a year to reverse the dire polling situation he inherited from Liz Truss. But Douglas-Home’s example does suggest that a year is long enough to narrow the gap from the 15-20 points the Conservatives currently find themselves behind, to being genuinely competitive whenever the next election is called. That might not mean victory – but losing by 1% is a better platform than by 20. 

Moreover, whether the Tories win next year or not, Douglas-Home also provides an excellent guide for how Sunak could lead his party in opposition. No ex-Prime Minister since Wilson has managed to lead their party through a Parliament after leaving office; the ambitions of Sunak’s colleagues are so blatant that few would be comfortable with him doing so. 

Nonetheless, Sunak wouldn’t have to resign the leadership immediately. Paradoxically, the worse the Tory defeat, the more pro-Sunak the parliamentary party becomes. He could thus imitate Douglas-Home in staying to oversee a change in the leadership election rules. Douglas-Home wanted to formalise the process that had caused such controversy with his selection. Sunak needs to save his party from itself. 

The leaderships of both Iain Duncan Smith and Liz Truss show the peril, under the present system, of Conservative MPs choosing one candidate from the final two and members choosing another. Forcing through changes to the party constitution is always difficult, and especially so when polling suggests members have little interest in losing their privileges. But Sunak should have the guts to at least try. 

Even if he can’t convince his party of the need for reform, the Prime Minister could follow Douglas-Home’s example in his future political career. Sunak might dream of quitting Parliament and heading back off to California. Yet at a time when the turnover of MPs (and Prime Ministers) is increasingly rapid, it would be of far greater value to his party – and country – if he opted to stay. 

Of the four ex-Tory PMs we’ve produced since 2010, two have decided to quit Parliament for more lucrative avenues elsewhere, and two have opted to remain in Parliament, posing as the voice of a particular part of the Conservative conscience. Contrast that with Douglas-Home, who happily served first as Edward Heath’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, and then again in government from 1970-1974.

He did so because of the same sense of duty that motivated him throughout his career. Despite his privileged upbringing, he became interested in politics due to the widespread poverty and unemployment in the Scottish lowlands where he lived. He later said he became an MP because ‘nearly a generation of politicians’ had been cut down in the trenches, so anyone who could provide ‘leadership ought to do so’. 

Sunak’s millions meant he had no need to go into politics, and his rejection in last year’s leadership contest meant he had no need to stay. Yet he did so and became Prime Minister on a wicket sticky enough that even Douglas-Home would feel uncomfortable batting. He hasn’t had the easiest first year. But one suspects Douglas-Home would have applauded his efforts – and told him to get onto the front foot. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.