Sunday 31 October 2010

Why David Cameron is not (quite) the least electorally successful Tory PM ever

It is odd to think of David Cameron as the most electorally unsuccessful Tory prime minister in history.

So writes Spectator editor Fraser Nelson in his Observer review of Michael Ashcroft's 'Minority Report', Nick Boles' Coalitionist tract and the Cowley/Kavanagh study of the 2010 General Election.

The claim strikes me as somewhat exaggerated. Cameroon loyalists might find it helpful to have the evidence as to why David Cameron can not quite claim his party's wooden spoon, though he might stake a reasonable claim to it if we restrict the search to the period after the Great War (on which the House of Commons Library has a useful summary of the post-1918 trends. (PDF).

But I think Arthur Balfour must surely claim the prize for the least successful Tory prime minister ever, succeeding his more electorally successful uncle Lord Salisbury mid-term in 1902 before splitting the government and party over tariff reform, and resigning as PM at the end of 1905 (in the hope of splitting his Liberal opponents too) before being trounced in the Liberal landslide of 1906.

In terms of vote share, the Tory performance in 2010 was their fifth worst in the 25 general elections since (near) universal suffrage in 1918.

Cameron got his 36% from opposition. Of the four worse results, only John Major's 31% in 1997 was achieved by a Prime Minister, though Major did previously achieve a majority in very difficult circumstances in 1992, while Cameron failed to do so in extremely auspicious context in 2010. Cameron's supporters might claim that he would need to perform very badly now to be ranked below Major on the electoral record, but he would also rank behind on election victories if he can not win a future majority.

Ted Heath had been out of office only six months when achieving a very similar share (35.7%) in the second 1974 election to that which Cameron achieved this Spring. Heath did win a surprise majority victory in 1970 against a Labour government with a considerably larger majority than the government held in 2010.

The two least successful Tory Prime Ministers of the 20th century - in terms of their political failure in their own terms - do not figure here as competitors for the electoral wooden spoon with David Cameron. Anthony Eden won a snap landslide in 1955, before his short premiership collapsed over Suez, and Macmillan was able to turn that disaster into a third election victory.

And Neville Chamberlain is the only 20th century Prime Minister who neither won nor lost a general election, succeeding in 1937 and leaving after the collapse of his policy in 1940, without ever troubling the electorate, though he might bear some responsibility for the Tory landslide defeat in 1945. (He could have won a big victory had he heeded calls to cash in on his post-Munich popularity with a snap election in 1938, but his party may be glad he did not.

[* UPDATE: This post should also have mentioned Sir Alec Douglas-Home, narrowly defeated by Harold Wilson in his only General Election in 1964, winning 303 seats out of only 630 and with 43.3% of the vote).

To date, David Cameron is the only other post-1918 Tory PM to have not won himself a Commons majority [*]. But he has time yet to take himself out of the relegation zone.


no longer anonymous said...

Balfour's Tories got 43% of the vote in 1906. They were only trounced so badly due to the vagaries of the electoral system.

Anonymous said...

You shouldn't use shares of the vote for this sort of thing; I know everyone does it, but it's misleading. It's only since 1974 that having at least three candidates in each constituency has been the norm (with the odd exception of 1950). Not only do you have that issue, but until the War it was common for large numbers of seats to go uncontested. The idea that parties should try to fight every single constituency is a surprisingly new one.

Though your main point isn't altered, really.

Stephen Wigmore said...

In fairness to Cameron he received a total mess and turned it into a near majority. He put on +97 seats in his only electoral outing. More than any Tory leader since the War.

No Conservative leader has ever managed to come back from that few seats to gain a majority. The last two times the Conservatives were almost wiped out in 1906, they didn't manage it in 1910 (twice) and it took churchill 1950 and 1951 to overtake Atlee.

Cameron could be commended for actually managing to 'win' (i.e. get to form a government and turf out the other lot) from a very poor starting position in one go. It's more than Churchill achieved in 1950 or Conservatives achieved in 1910.

Sunder Katwala said...

thanks for comments.


Fair point, though it is a pretty resounding defeat for Balfour. It is not only the voting system: there is an electoral pact between the Liberals and Labour. (This is why the Tories do not win an overall majority in the 1910 elections, when they have more votes than the Liberals).


agree, though Fraser Nelson is making a striking point by using the vote shares.

I have done something different for Left Foot Forward in creating a league table of leaders.

In itself, it would seem pretty uncontroversial to regard 2010 as the 9th best Tory election result out of 18 since 1945, and the weakest of their election victories, but a better result than Feb 1974 or the elections where Labour won a majority.

Stephen Wigmore - up to a point. it is rather generous as Cameron is not having his one go immediately after they are wiped out, but is getting the third shot at the Labour government. That is why he is taking on a government where 75% of people think it is "time for a change" from Labour, and his big failure is to not get the "time for a change from Labour and to the Conservatives" above 34%, which I discuss in this New Statesman post on the Cowley/Kavanagh book.

13eastie said...

"It is odd to think of David Cameron as the most electorally unsuccessful Tory prime minister in history."


It's rather like thinking of Harold Abrahams as "Great Britains's slowest Olympic 100m gold medalist".

Cameron succeeded in becoming PM on the basis of a general election, making huge gains for his party (57% more than Thatcher did in '79) and securing 25% more votes than Labour.

You can use a tally of votes whose sum is less than 100% to "prove" almost anything.

And pitching vote shares from different elections against one-another is almost as fatuous as trying to portray someone as a "loser" by deleting his opponents from the analysis.

Comparing Cameron's electoral performance with those of some Labour PM's (chosen at random):

Cameron (2010) 36.1% share (1 win from 1 attempt)
Attlee (1951) 48.8% (1 win from 2 attempts)
Callaghan (1979) 36.9% (0 wins from 1 attempts)
Brown (2010) 29.0% (0* wins from 1** attempts)

*Not even elected by his own party.
**Chickened out of another.

Of these, only Cameron and Attlee ever actually won the premiership at a general election, and Attlee served for only one year.

Since 1918, only Chamberlain served as a Tory PM without ever winning at a general election, though his electoral record, uniquely gives a divide-by-zero error.

If we are to confine ourselves to the present day, Cameron's electoral record also seems to compare favourably with Red Ed's dubious Back in the USSR/"not even the best drummer in the Beatles" status as party leader...

13eastie said...

P.S. I ought, perhaps, to have made it clearer than Attlee actually lost the 1951 election, despite polling at 48.8%.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. There's now a full Labour league table on the Left Foot Forward post.

Its not an entirely serious exercise. The initial comment was from Fraser Nelson, Spectator editor and a voice on the political right.

Cameron's 2010 election is the 9th best Tory election performance out of 18, though if you feel he had particularly weak opponent then he might have done rather better.

13eastie said...

"Cameron's 2010 election is the 9th best Tory election performance out of 18, though if you feel he had particularly weak opponent then he might have done rather better."

Yes, he could certainly have done better, though strategically, I suspect that Labour will continue to struggle to oppose the Coalition in quite the way they would have got stuck into a Tory government.

The really interesting thing looking back at various electoral turning points is that Cameron secured a smaller share of the popular vote this year than Callaghan did in 1979 (when the Liberals took 13%), and Callaghan himself polled higher in '79 than Blair in 2005.

Compared to Callaghan's calamity, Cameron must actually have done an outstanding job electorally to reach beyond Tory heartlands and target swing voters in key marginals, especially since the Liberal vote doubled between '79 and 2010.

Blair polled lower in 2005 than Cameron did this year yet he won a 66 seat majority.

The boundaries have, over 30 years, become so rigged in Labour's favour that the correct analytical question is not so much "Why didn't Cameron get a majority?" but more "How bad must Brown/Labour have been to lose theirs?". They even had the pick of the dates - a nice sunny day to commemorate the anniversary of Blair in '97 IIRC. (And an ejector seat for the aborted trial run. And that marvellous postal vote system. And speacial un-constitutional seats for busy-bodies from Scotland etc. ad nauseam).

Back in 1924 Paris, it seems doubtful that Jackson Scholz could have got with away jumping the gun to a such a degree...