Who is the most successful Conservative party leader?

It all started with John Major. Back in December I was at a seminar being hosted by Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary. Now working at the University of East Anglia, Clarke was giving a presentation on the relative success of leaders of the Conservative party* and showed us two tables: one ranking leaders by the amount of seats they had won or lost and another ranking them by the vote swing they had achieved. In both cases, John Major languished at the bottom.

Tory leader seats-01 Tory leader vote-01

The implication seemed to be that Major was the weakest Conservative leader. This seemed unfair – unlike several of the leaders above him, Major had actually won a general election. Is this not actually the primary purpose of a party leader, I wondered. And, 10 months later, my own ranking is here.

All Tory leaders-01

In essence, all I’ve done is take the three measures that Clarke had identified (seats won, vote swing and length of term as leader) and added two of my own (number and percentage of elections won). The leaders are then scored out of 100 on each of these measures which, weighted equally, combine to give a score of 500. This means that the two categories concerned explicitly with winning elections account for 40% of a leader’s possible score, significantly boosting the scores of those leaders who have managed to make themselves Prime Minister. (You can find a full description of the methodology I used here.)

Ironically, it still hasn’t particularly helped John Major. The scale of his defeat in 1997 – dumping the Conservatives out of office for 13 years – has obliterated any benefit he derives from his surprise 1992 victory, and lifting him only to 12th place out of the 13 leaders examined. So what other surprises did the rankings reveal?

David Cameron (2nd place)

David Cameron appearing in 2nd place was a genuine surprise to me (although a great storytelling narrative – hence why ConservativeHome have covered the rankings here). But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. A previous infographic I had created (see below) had flagged that, whilst the Conservative party was an election-winning machine in the 20th century, it was mostly at the hands of Conservative leaders who had only won one election. It is no surprise, therefore, that the only leaders of the period – Thatcher, Cameron and Baldwin, should appear at the top of the rankings.

Leaders winning elections-01

Likewise, Cameron had the relatively “advantageous” position of being left a rump of a Conservative party in terms of vote share and seats following successive defeats at the hands of Tony Blair. That should not detract from the scale of his achievements however – William Hague and Michael Howard both failed to make significant headway from the same position. Cameron’s decision to fashion his own exit has also cemented his position – by standing down before the next election, there is no chance Cameron will lose points should he lose the election (his score will in fact grow between now and then, to a maximum of 434 should he wait to stand down as leader of the party on the dissolution of Parliament on 30 March 2020).

Winston Churchill (7th place)

Winston Churchill, perhaps Britain’s most revered Prime Minister (certainly on the right), falls exactly in the middle of the table in 7th place. As it turns out, although a proficient Hitler-defeater, Churchill somewhat sucked at winning elections, winning only one of the three he contested (and with a majority of just 16 for the one he did win – almost exactly the same size as Cameron’s majority now).

In fact, the only thing preventing Churchill from falling even lower down the rankings is the extreme length of his time as leader of the party: at 14 years and 5 months he is surpassed only by Thatcher. Given his inability to win elections, he is certainly aided by the absence thanks to the Second World War. Whilst this may seem like an unfair reason to boost his score, consider that a war does not cement the position of a party leader – just look at Neville Chamberlain, or Herbert Asquith before him.

Tory leader term-01

Leaders used to stick around, even if they lost

It’s hard to imagine, following the successive resignations of Major, Hague and Howard, along with the ejection of Duncan Smith, that there was once a time where the Conservative party tolerated failure. But looking back to a time before Thatcher treated the Conservative party to a succession of impressive victories, the main reason a leader of the Conservatives was destined to be PM in the 20th century seemed to be as much about longevity as much as anything else.

Tory leader victories-01

I’m going to cut things off there, and let people draw their own conclusions from the rankings. I’d love to hear from you – you can tweet me on @mattsmithetc. Below, you can find a description of the methodology, and a few bits and pieces answering likely questions of the rankings.


  • Each leader is scored out of a possible 100 points in each of the five categories: “seats change”, “vote % change”, “term as leader”, “elections won” and “% elections won”. These scores are then added to reach a total score out of a possible 500.
  • For “seats change” and “vote % change”, a scale was created from the lowest figure and leader had achieved to the highest. The leader with the lowest value was scored zero and the leader with the highest was scored 100. All leaders in between were scored based upon where they place on this scale.
  • For “term as leader”, “election wins” and “election % wins”, a scale was created from zero to the highest figure that a leader had achieved. All leaders were scored based upon where they place on this scale, with the leader with the highest figure scoring 100.
  • An election “win” here is counted as any election where the leader becomes Prime Minister as a result. In the case of Bonar-Law in 1918 and Baldwin in 1931, although the Coalition/National platforms on which they fought the election were successful, and both achieved a majority in the House of Commons in terms of Conservative seats alone, neither became Prime Minister, nor due to their shared platforms can they claim full credit for the election victory. These elections are therefore considered to be a half win, and are treated in the scoring as if Baldwin had won 2.5 elections overall and Bonar Law 1.5.
  • The seats scoring for Arthur Balfour excludes seats won by the Liberal Unionists, which are sometimes lumped together with the Conservatives as a combined total.

Questions and responses to likely criticisms

Why are some leaders not listed?

As the results of elections constitutes 80% of a leader’s potential score, it wouldn’t have worked to have displayed those leaders who did not fight elections – hence the absence of Iain Duncan Smith and Neville Chamberlain. (This list is drawn up with a Labour follow-up in mind, and foremost in my mind is the desire to avoid ranking John Smith poorly for having died during his tenure).

Likewise, the list only covers the 20th and 21st century leaders. This is a hangover from the original list that Charles Clarke used. It allows for a fair comparison with the eventual Labour list, which will cover the same time period, which also coincides with the birth of that party. It also avoids a lot of the trickiness of comparing leaders under the drastically different suffrage levels in the 19th century.

David Cameron didn’t win the 2010 election! Why are “wins” counted this way?

You don’t think David Cameron won the 2010 election? Tell that to Gordon Brown!

Less flippantly, I’ve used becoming Prime Minister as the measure of election success as I feel it is more valid than how many seats were won. It is, after all, the goal of any party leader to become Prime Minister. It also means that we can properly acknowledge the success of forming a minority administration (again, with an eye to Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 election victory for the purposes of a future Labour version of these rankings). As Labour are going to have to learn again under Corbyn – power is the goal!

I have acknowledged the awkward situation of Bonar Law and Baldwin as part of their respective Coalition and National governments in the scoring as a “half” victory each. Although the Coalition/National platforms on which they fought the election were successful, and both achieved a majority in the House of Commons in terms of Conservative seats alone, neither became Prime Minister, nor due to their shared platforms can they claim full credit for the election victory.

Why do you use a change in seat/vote totals rather than, say, total number of seats won?

Put simply, because I don’t think a leader necessarily has a lot to do with winning some particular safe seats. Pin a Conservative (or Labour) badge on a scarecrow in some constituencies and it’ll win that seat. I wanted to measure – as admittedly Charles Clarke had before me – the seat and vote change the leader can actually be held accountable for, and that means looking at what the total is once you total up the seats won vs seats lost.

But boundary redrawing, but different economic circumstances, but war, but…

Yes, these are valid, but the simple fact of the matter is that a party leader must take the party, and the world, as they find it. It is the job of any party leader to put (or keep) their party in power, and this is the measure against which, I believe, they must be judged. It is a measure of how up to the challenge of their times a party leader is.

Doesn’t the scoring reward leaders who start from a low base?

It can, as with David Cameron. It is worth pointing out though that there is nothing preordained about doing well from a low base – look at the abject failures of William Hague and Michael Howard (and indeed Ed Miliband). I think it therefore does actually provide a fair assessment of the scale of the achievements of a leader like Cameron.

Any further questions? Get in touch with me on twitter at @mattsmithetc.

*Clarke’s work has now culminated in an excellent book on the Conservative party’s leaders, from Peel to Cameron. You can find it here.

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