Boris is by no means the first PM to leave mid term

Royal Libertys 1955 mock general election took place almost two months after Sir Anthony Edens Tor

Anthony Eden who resigned on health grounds - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Delving into the past with Chris Hallam.

Chris Hallam

Chris Hallam - Credit: Chris Hallam

As some of you are no doubt aware, a new Prime Minister is currently being selected without a General Election. This is not unusual. In fact, it is the ninth time this has occurred since 1945.

In April 1955, Winston Churchill announced his retirement as Prime Minister. He was eighty years old and was in poor health having suffered a series of strokes.

The Tories did not elect their party leaders back then, but there was no doubt his Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, who had been waiting impatiently from the side-lines for years would succeed him.

Although he was not constitutionally obliged to do so, Eden called, fought and won a General Election almost immediately,

Sadly for Eden, after such a long wait, his premiership ended quickly after he totally mishandled the Suez Crisis of 1956. Technically, Eden resigned on health grounds too.

He was genuinely ill, but after the humiliation of Suez, there is no doubt he would have to have had to resign anyway. Most observers expected the ever-loyal ‘Rab” Butler , the architect of the famous Education Act, to succeed Eden.

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Butler expected this himself. But after a mysterious process of consultation by a group of party elders known as “the Magic Circle,” Harold Macmillan emerged as Prime Minister instead In January 1957.

“SuperMac” proved to be a popular choice and went onto win the 1959 election for the Tories. By 1963, however, the government had been badly rattled by the Profumo sex scandal.

When Macmillan was diagnosed with prostate problems on the first day of the Tory Party Conference, he seized upon the opportunity to resign.

Although Tory MPs still could not vote for their leaders, the party conference now turned into a battleground for an undeclared leadership contest with prospective leaders like Lord Hailisham delivering barnstorming speeches to the floor.

In the end, Rab Butler was again the favourite but was again rejected.

The outgoing Macmillan seems to have intervened to block his old rival from getting the top job. The final victor, Lord Home (pronounced so as to rhyme with “room” not “roam”) was an aristocrat and seemed an odd choice to face the more modern media-savvy, young and dynamic new Labour leader Harold Wilson in the 1964 General Election. In the end, Home barely lasted a year in office losing to Labour and ending 13 years of Tory rule.

By 1976, Harold Wilson was considerably less young and dynamic. His sudden resignation as Prime Minister triggered the first ever leadership contest to occur within a party in government.

Wilson’s long-term ally, James Callaghan eventually emerged triumphant in a contest featuring many talented figures including Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Michael Foot and Roy Jenkins. Callaghan would lead Labour to defeat against Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979.

The removal of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister in 1990 was perhaps the least smooth transition of power of all (although Boris Johnson’s stubborn refusal to relinquish power in 2022 must come close).

Despite three General Election wins, Margaret Thatcher had become deeply unpopular by November 1990, largely due to her dogged commitment to uphold the Community Charge otherwise known as the Poll Tax. Disagreements over Europe triggered a backbench leadership challenge from her former defence secretary, Michael Heseltine.

He didn’t win, but did well enough to drive her reluctantly from office. Thatcher’s Chancellor John Major defeated Heseltine in the next round. “He who wields the sword, rarely wears the crown,” mused Heseltine, the defeated challenger.

In contrast, the departure of Tony Blair after a decade in power in 2007, resulted in a non-contest with Blair’s Chancellor, Gordon Brown running for the position uncontested. David Cameron quit in 2016 as he had led the defeated “Remain” camp in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

His successor, Theresa May quit in 2019 after failing to deliver Brexit.

The current contest was prompted by Boris Johnson’s resignation. This occurred after widespread doubts emerged over his leadership during the pandemic and over his character and general competence to lead.