Thanks to the new fixed term arrangements, the days of a Prime Minister calling an election whenever the political weather seemed favourable are gone. But while Thatcher, Blair, Macmillan and Eden took full advantage of this privilege, other Prime Ministers have made a real mess of it…
Calling the election too early
June 1970 (Harold Wilson)
Few would blame Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson for calling an election almost a full year before he had to for June 1970. After a rocky few years, the economy was recovering and Labour was way ahead in the polls. The pipe-smoking northerner Wilson was always more popular than the somewhat stuffy Tory leader Edward Heath too. Many (including Tory Enoch Powell) eagerly anticipated Heath’s second defeat (he had also led the Tories to defeat in 1966) and inevitable resignation as Tory leader.
But the opinion polls turned out to be wrong. Very wrong. On election night, the Tories won a majority of thirty. The result was totally unexpected. A low turnout and unexpectedly poor trade figures did for Labour. Labour had branded the Tories “Yesterday’s Men”. Now it was their turn to be consigned to history.
February 1974 (Edward Heath)
Under different circumstances, Prime Minister Heath fell into the same trap as Wilson during the Three Day Week crisis a few years later. With a six percent lead in the polls, Heath called a surprise early election on the issue “Who Governs Britain?” The government or the unions? An election didn’t have to be called until June 1975, but Heath wanted the issue resolved immediately and was confident of victory.
Instead, the result was very inconclusive and a disaster for Heath personally. The Tories got more votes but slightly fewer seats. The Tories had lost their majority needlessly. Edward Heath, who didn’t even have a house to move into after Downing Street (a friend put him and his piano up) moved out after Hung Parliament negotiations with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe failed. Harold Wilson was back and he was returned to power again with a small majority in a second election in October. Heath’s leadership of the Tories ended with his shock removal by Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.
Clinging to power
October 1964 (Alec-Douglas Home)
Just as calling an election too early can be calamitous, a leader clinging to power until the very last minute hardly inspires great confidence either. Alec-Douglas Home did indeed lose narrowly for the Tories after holding out for a full five years until October 1964. With Home focusing heavily on Labour’s apparent inexperience in foreign policy during the election campaign, however, Home may have, in retrospect, wished the election had been held a day later. With news of China exploding its first H-bomb and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev suddenly being toppled breaking on the day after polling, the new international uncertainty might well have persuaded voters to stay in the Tory camp had news of these two troubling international events come to light slightly earlier. As it was, Labour won with a majority of just four.
Pretending to be about to call an election and then not doing so (James Callaghan, 1978. Gordon Brown 2007)
“Can’t get away to marry you today, my wife won’t let me!” Labour PM James Callaghan surprised everyone at the TUC Conference in September 1978, by not calling an election and singing this ancient music hall ditty instead (he had been born in 1912). Although leading the less popular Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories in the polls, the cautious Callaghan feared a 1978 election might end in a dead heat and preferred to wait until 1979. The decision was a disaster.
Over the winter, relations between government and unions broke down completely. Memories of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” with rubbish left uncollected and some isolated cases of the dead being left unburied, would poison Labour’s prospects not just in 1979 but for years to come.
Gordon Brown’s attempts to capitalise on the short-lived “Brown bounce” just after he became Prime Minister in 2007 backfired horribly too. Brown’s dithering ensured that the party never recovered from “the election that never was” and led to its actual defeat in 2010.