The pain when a cabinet minister loses his or her seat in a general election is usually felt more by the individual than by their party. Most defeats happen when the minister’s party is removed from office, so their old post is filled by a member of another party. Only rarely is a cabinet minister defeated while their party continues in office.
The 1997 general election is probably best remembered for its “Portillo moment”, when John Major’s defence secretary, Michael Portillo lost his seat at Enfield Southgate. But he was not alone. A bumper crop of seven cabinet ministers lost their seats at that election. It was the largest haul since 1906.
The previous record was in 1945 when the Conservatives went down to their landslide defeat at the hands of their wartime coalition partners, the Labour Party. Five Conservative cabinet ministers lost their seats in that election, including Harold Macmillan. However, he later returned and became prime minister.
The 2015 election ranks next with the losses of Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Ed Davey and several other senior ministers including David Laws, Simon Hughes and Lynne Featherstone. The only Conservative minister to lose her seat was Esther McVey, employment minister, but the Conservative cabinet escaped unscathed and David Cameron continues as prime minister. This election was also remarkable for the loss of some of the Labour Party’s big beasts including Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander.
Going down in a group provides some consolation compared to an individual defeat. Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman who helped his party to a surprise victory in the 1992 election against the trend of the opinion polls, lost his seat at Bath in that election.
Back to the 90s
The 2015 election bore strong similarities to 1992, with opinion polls putting the Labour and Conservative parties neck and neck during the campaign, only for John Major’s Conservatives to win the actual contest with an overall majority of 21 seats. However, by the end of the parliament this majority had been eroded by defections and by-election defeats. Major’s party was split, primarily over Europe. Cameron’s joy at winning on May 7 may well be tempered by the memory of the slow public demise of Major’s authority and his defeat in the following general election in 1997.
Going back further in history, the defeat of Patrick Gordon-Walker at the 1964 election was notorious. He was appointed foreign secretary in the new Labour government although he lost his seat at Smethwick in a bitter contest tainted by racial slurs. He remained in the cabinet until he tried and failed to be re-elected in a by-election. He then had to resign from the cabinet.
It happened to the best of them
Perhaps the saddest case was that of Charles Masterman, who has been dubbed the “unluckiest man in British politics”. Journalist and social reformer, Masterman was elected in the 1906 Liberal landslide for West Ham North and was re-elected in January 1910.
He published a well-known book, The Condition of England, and worked closely with Winston Churchill and Lloyd George on the People’s Budget, but in the general election in December 1910, his election was declared void. He was returned to parliament at a by-election in 1911 and in 1914 he was appointed to the cabinet. Under the rules at the time, newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and re-contest it. Masterman lost the resulting by-election. He tried again in a by-election at Ipswich, but again failed and had to resign from the cabinet. His health deteriorated, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse, and he died in 1927.
The biggest beast of all though, Winston Churchill, was defeated when he had to contest a by-election in his seat in Manchester North West on his appointment to the cabinet in 1908. Nevertheless, he soon found another seat, this time in Dundee. During his lengthy career, Churchill suffered a total of five defeats in his 21 contests. This may be some consolation to those big beasts felled in the 2015 election, although for some there is unlikely to be a resurrection.