News Britain

Sunday 20 August 2017

Prime Ministers who have gambled and lost

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the declaration at the election count
British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the declaration at the election count

Chris Moncrieff

Theresa May is by no means the first British Prime Minister - within living memory - to have gambled and, seemingly, lost.

Her jaunty spirits when she called the election, when the Tories were expected to wipe the floor with Labour and emerge with a massive parliamentary majority, must have gradually sunk to near zero as day after day the opinion polls showed the Tories were losing support.

James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath and even Winston Churchill all gambled in different ways, but in each case the outcome was political disaster for each of them.

It was widely assumed Callaghan would hold a general election in 1978, which the pundits thought he would win. But he chose to defer it.

I remember sitting alongside Margaret Thatcher, then Tory leader, as Callaghan announced his decision in a ministerial broadcast. She was dumbfounded.

He hoped for some economic recovery, but above all he feared that an October election would produce another hung parliament, leaving Labour still dependent on fixes and deals.

As it transpired, his delaying tactics proved fatal for Labour.

But then the Winter of Discontent got even more severe, and the infamous "crisis, what crisis?" quote (which he never actually uttered), was the last straw.

Finally his Government was defeated by a single Commons vote on a vote of no confidence.

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Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Photo: PA Wire
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Photo: PA Wire

This led to Margaret Thatcher's storming victory in 1979 - leaving Labour with 18 years before they got back into power.

Thatcher herself gambled in a different way some 11 years later - she lost too and it cost her the premiership.

A Tory poll on the party's leadership - as her popularity began to fade - brought her downfall, but in a curious way.

She led the first ballot by four votes, with Michael Heseltine hot on her heels.

But that margin was not enough to avoid a second ballot, which she was advised, almost certainly accurately, that she would lose.

But on the day of that vote Thatcher took a gamble and went to Paris on political business which was not regarded as hugely important.

Her absence from Westminster as Tory MPs were voting was seen as arrogance of the worst type.

It was widely said, and probably true, that if she had remained in the Commons to chivvy MPs to support her, she would almost certainly have secured a a victory margin large enough to avoid a second ballot.

In Paris, as the result was announced, she boldly declared: "I fight on."

But wiser counsel prevailed and with huge reluctance she removed herself from the contest, although accusing some of her allies of having been treacherous.

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This led to John Major's unexpected arrival in Downing Street.

Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major arrives for the funeral of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at Sacred Heart Church, Donnybrook Dublin.
Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major arrives for the funeral of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at Sacred Heart Church, Donnybrook Dublin.

When Thatcher was asked why she supported Major in the final ballot, she replied: "He was the best of a bad bunch."

And in 1974, amid serious industrial conflict, Edward Heath, harried by the trade unions, called his "who governs Britain?" election, when he had an overall Commons majority of 18 and 14 months of the Parliament still to run.

It was a gamble that failed.

Heath tested the Liberals, who refused to enter a coalition, and so Harold Wilson was back in Downing Street.

Heath remained on the back-benches for the rest of his political life.

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And in 1945 Winston Churchill, having led Britain to victory in the Second World War, could be forgiven for assuming that a grateful nation would want to keep him at No 10.

But it was not to be. War-weary servicemen and women returning from the front seemed to be repulsed by the idea of a Conservative Government.

Even so, some thought Churchill, with his magic, might have rescued the situation.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

However, he ruined all that by using in a speech the word "Gestapo" in relation to Labour, thus making a difficult situation impossible.

His use of the word was widely resented.

This was an altogether stupid gamble on Churchill's part, having been warned by his wife Clementine, and implored by others, not to use it.

But the obdurate old bruiser went ahead and helped to put Labour's Clement Attlee into power.

So Theresa May, with her own gamble, joins some illustrious company.

But that will not be any comfort to her.

Press Association

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