How do you bring down a prime minister like Theresa?
The recent ‘coup’ against Theresa May was doomed from the start. But could the plotters have learnt from history?
As Bonfire Night approaches, thoughts around the country inevitably turn to plots. But at Westminster, they think of little else all year round. And while most are as unsuccessful as Guy Fawkes was in 1605, when they come to fruition, they have the power to bring down leaders and change the course of history.
In the wake of Grant Shapps’ less than successful coup against Theresa May, The House has spoken to key figures involved in some of the most significant Westminster plots of recent decades – some successful, some not – to find out what causes them, how they work and how, with the right amount of cunning and political nous, they can be thwarted.
In 1974, time was running out for Edward Heath. Having called an election he didn’t need to in the February of that year, the prime minister had seen his majority disappear. So far, so 2017. But unlike May, Heath was booted out of Number 10 to make way for Harold Wilson, whose Labour party won a mere four seats more than the Tories.
Any thoughts of ousting Heath were put on hold due to the inevitably of a second election that year, and it duly arrived in the October. This time round, Wilson managed to win an overall majority of three seats.
Having lost two elections in a row, the men in grey suits decided that it was time for Ted to go, and a plot was hatched to oust him from his job. The only snag was that there was no obvious replacement. The favourite was Willie Whitelaw, but he did not want to challenge his great friend Heath.
Tory MPs formed small groups to conspire against their leader, the most determined of which comprised of, among others, Nigel Fisher and Airey Neave.
“One evening in the late autumn of ’74, Airey Neave turned up and said ‘I’ve got the answer to our problems – Maggie,’” one Conservative source remembers. The Maggie in question was, of course, Margaret Thatcher, who had served as secretary of state for education and science in Heath’s last government.
The source adds: “She seemed to have a clarity of vision and ambition when we met with her and it was decided that we would back her.”
Although she didn’t win in the first ballot, Thatcher saw off the challenges of Jim Prior and Whitelaw in the second round. “She had the courage to fight, and she was rewarded,” says one senior Conservative.
But the story of Margaret Thatcher demonstrates how the beneficiaries of Westminster plots can ultimately be their victim. By 1989, she had been Tory leader for nearly 15 years and prime minister for 10. However, like Heath before her, she was now on borrowed time.
The introduction of the hated Poll Tax in Scotland proved to be the spark which lit a slow-burning plot which ultimately led to her downfall in 1990.
One Tory observes: “As well as the Poll Tax, she was also becoming increasingly dogmatic on Europe. What finally did for her was her treatment of Geoffrey Howe.”
Having been demoted from foreign secretary to leader of the house in 1989 – although he was given the largely meaningless title of Deputy PM to soften the blow – Howe quit in November 1990, and in one of the great acts of Commons theatre used his resignation speech to savage Thatcher over the Poll Tax and Europe. He ended with a call for regime change: “The time has come for others to consider their own response to this tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.”
The game was now afoot, and Michael Heseltine decided to challenge the PM. “She didn’t have a counter strategy, and Heseltine’s troops were very well organised,” says one former Tory MP. Despite that, Heseltine failed to topple her in the first ballot. Although Thatcher initially vowed to “fight on”, a succession of Cabinet ministers trooped into Number 10 to tell her the game was up. The fact that her great foe Heseltine ultimately lost out to John Major was a small crumb of comfort for the deposed leader.
If those plots were, ultimately, successful, Grant Shapps’ abortive attempt to unseat Theresa May a few weeks ago showed that, more often than not, they end in failure.
No prime minister has surely survived more attempts at political assassination than Gordon Brown, who was only finally unseated by the electorate. In just three years as PM, the former Labour leader was the target of at least four efforts to get rid of him, each of which were unsuccessful for a variety of different reasons.
Having replaced Tony Blair – himself the victim of a plot by Brown-backing ministers to force him out after a decade in power – in 2007, he only had to wait until the following year for the first move against him. His former aides, who remain fiercely loyal to their old boss, suspect arch-Blairite John Reid of being behind that effort. They planned to co-ordinate a series of ministerial resignations, while other MPs would write letters calling on him to go. Little did the plotters know, however, that Brown had someone on the inside.
One former Brown ally says: “Nick Brown [then Labour chief whip] had someone among the plotters who was feeding back to us who was involved and what they planned to do. So they all woke up one morning to find out that they were all over the news. It put them on the back foot and it fizzled out within 24 hours.”
In the summer of the same year, foreign secretary David Miliband wrote an article for The Guardian containing a coded attack on his boss. Team Brown’s strategy this time was to, in the words of one former aide, “ramp it up” and force Miliband to show his hand.
“We put pressure on him to see if he was ready to deliver,” the source says. “The fact that he had literally no plan for what to do meant he was totally busted.”
The local council and European elections in June 2009 – and the heavy Labour losses –spawned the plot which had the most potential to bring Brown down. As polls closed, the BBC News at Ten revealed that James Purnell had resigned as work and pensions secretary, and written to the PM urging him to consider his position.
The plotters had planned that Purnell’s fellow ministers Caroline Flint and David Miliband – yes, him again – would follow him over the top the next day, increasing the pressure on Brown to quit. But once again, the PM’s team had caught wind of the latest conspiracy, and were determined to thwart it.
“The critical thing was that we didn’t do anything to stop Purnell resigning, but we focused attention on persuading Caroline Flint not to go, including promising her a promotion,” said the former Brown ally. “That was enough to make her wobble, and that meant Miliband’s carefully planned resignation didn’t happen and the whole thing collapsed.”
Then, in January 2010, with the general election just four months away and Labour heading for a seemingly inevitable defeat, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt launched a desperate – and widely-viewed as hopeless – plot to unseat the PM before the country went to the polls.
As Brown prepared for Prime Minister’s Questions, the former Cabinet ministers circulated a letter among colleagues calling for a secret ballot on his leadership. Unlike the other plots, this one caught his team off completely guard.
“Nobody had a clue that it was going to happen, which led us to think it wasn’t very well-organised,” says one senior Labour figure familiar with the events. “What became apparent on the day was that Alistair Darling and Jack Straw did have knowledge that it was going to happen and had given it some tacit consent. The crucial thing then became persuading Darling to condemn it.”
Ed Balls, a key member of Brown’s Praetorian Guard, went on the media to attack those behind the coup attempts, and mocking Darling and Straw. The tactic worked, and plot number four went the same way as the other three.
“The one thing that would have caused real bother for Gordon was if there had ever been a poll which showed Labour would have done better with another leader, but there never was,” says one of his former allies. “That may well be one of the things saving Theresa May now.”
As to why the Houses of Parliament are such a hotbed of intrigue and backbiting, one veteran insider says the reason is clear: “Proximity – we’re all together. It was even worse in the old days, when there were no family-friendly hours and the House would often sit through the night. Members would dine together and drink together – the perfect conditions for plotting.”
The hours may well be shorter in the Commons these days, but the appetite for plotting, backbiting and skulduggery remain as strong as ever.
This article first appeared in The House magazine.