Who are the most electorally successful post-war Tory prime ministers?

Even if the Tories won a higher share of the vote in 1945 and 1966 than they did this year, Cameron clearly achieved a better result than the eight occasions when another party won a majority (1945, 1950, 1964, 1966, Oct 1974, 1997, 2001 and 2005) or the one Hung Parliament where Labour was the largest party, in February 1974.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society

“It is odd to think of David Cameron as the most electorally unsuccessful Tory prime minister in history”, was Spectator editor Fraser Nelson’s eye-catching opening line in reviewing a selection of post-election books for Sunday’s Observer.

Nelson was making a statistical point. With 36.1 per cent, David Cameron won a lower share of the vote (and fewer seats) than any previous Conservative prime minister achieved in any election which took them to Downing Street, or the worst performance in vote share or seats in any election which saw the Conservatives retain power.

Indeed, 2010 saw the fifth lowest Tory share of the vote in any election since universal suffrage, worsted only by the landslide defeat which removed John Major from power in 1997, and the Tory defeats in opposition in 2005, 2001 and (more marginally) in October 1974 when Ted Heath polled 35.8 per cent in his final rematch with Harold Wilson.

But placing David Cameron bottom of the Tory electoral premiership may be a little unfair. The fragmentation of the two-party vote since the 1950s – and particularly since 1974 – means the share of the vote playing field is somewhat tilted against modern leaders. So how might we then rank Cameron against other Tory leaders? Left Foot Forward’s alternative method creates a Tory Premiership league table by giving Tory leaders 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw (hung Parliament).

On this measure, Cameron is not quite bottom of the post-1945 Tory premiership. He ranks 7th out of 8 above Alec Douglas-Home, who was narrowly defeated by Harold Wilson on his only electoral outing in 1964, though he won 43.4% of the vote and 304 seats. Cameron does finish above the three post-1997 Tory leaders who never won promotion to the Premiership; the first Tory leaders since Austen Chamberlain not to make it to number 10.

Perhaps cheerleaders for Cameron might suggest some sort of NASL-style bonus, giving him an extra point for a penalty shoot-out victory in which the party had most seats in a Hung Parliament, compared to Ted Heath’s defeat on penalties in the first 1974 election. That type of US import would not, however, change the league table positions.

On average share of the vote, Cameron is 8th out of 8, and bottom of the post-1945 Tory premiership since, strikingly, his 36.1 per cent falls short of John Major’s average taking into account his 1992 election victory on 41.9 per cent as well as his 1997 landslide defeat on 30.7 per cent.

On average seats, Cameron makes it up to 4th out of 8. These are seats won, not as a percentage of the Commons, and so are mildly biased towards later leaders, since the House used to be smaller, for example containing only 630-635 seats from 1955-79. However, the Tory tally includes Ulster Unionists until the mid-1970s, somewhat balancing this.

The fairest “long view” perspective of the Tory performance in 2010 would be to regard it as the very definition of mid-table mediocrity. Overall, it was the 9th best Tory election result of the 18 post-war general elections.

It is a worse result than the eight occasions on which the Tories won a majority (1951, 1955, 1959, 1970, 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992). But, even if the Tories won a higher share of the vote in 1945 and 1966 than they did this year, Cameron clearly achieved a better result than the eight occasions when another party won a majority (1945, 1950, 1964, 1966, Oct 1974, 1997, 2001 and 2005) or the one Hung Parliament where Labour was the largest party, in February 1974.


Tory premiership

 

P

W

D

L

Points

Avg. vote

Avg. seats
Thatcher 3 3 0 0 9 42.9 371
Heath 4 1 1 2 4 40.5 289
Eden 1 1 0 0 3 49.7 345
MacMillan 1 1 0 0 3 49.4 365
Churchill 3 1 0 2 3 43.8 278
Major 2 1 0 1 3 36.3 251
Cameron 1 0 1 0 1 36.1 307
Douglas-Home 1 0 0 1 0 43.4 304

Tory non-premiership

 

P

W

D

L

Points

Avg. vote

Avg. seats
Howard 1 0 0 1 0 32.4 198
Hague 1 0 0 1 0 31.7 166
Duncan Smith 0 0 0 0 0 n/a n/a


Vote/seat averages compiled using the 1945-2010 figures as published in
The British General Election of 2010’ (Professors Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh), Appendix 1: The voting statistics

Update 17:30hrs 02/11/10

I’m glad the Tory Premiership has amused the blogger Guido Fawkes (if not one of his minions) who comments below that:

“Sunder Katwala Admits Thatcher Was Best Prime Minister Shocker”

But I guess a Tory leader was always likely to top a league table of Tory premiers.

So what happens if we admit Labour leaders to the Electoral Premiership too? Sheer stamina gives top place in the league to a surprise winner: Harold Wilson. By just forcing the ball over the line in injury time during the 1974 replay (where he won a majority of 3), Wilson ends on 10 points from his five election outings.

That may seem harsh on both Thatcher and Blair who end with nine points each from three straight victories, but neither were able to persuade their parties to let them go on and on beyond that. With Thatcher ahead on vote share and Blair on average seats, it is hard to separate their rival claims.

Post-war-Labour-prime-ministers

So here’s the Labour league table:


Labour electoral premiership, 1945-2010

 

P

W

D

L

Points

Avg. vote

Avg. seats
Wilson 5 3 1 1 10 42.3 318
Blair 3 3 0 0 9 39.7 395
Attlee* 4 2 0 2 6 47.4 320
Brown 1 0 1 0 1 29.0 258
Callaghan 1 0 0 1 0 37.0 269


* 1935 election defeat omitted for Attlee

Labour non-premiership

 

P

W

D

L

Points

Avg. vote

Avg. seats
Gaitskell 1 0 0 1 0 43.8 258
Kinnock 2 0 0 2 0 32.6 250
Foot 1 0 0 1 0 27.6 209
Smith 0 0 0 0 0 n/a n/a
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