The first rule of politics is never resign. Yet hapless MPs have been forced to quit in scandals involving sex, theft, drugs, double-crossing call girls and even attempted murder. Others have staged kamikaze resignations to damage their own leaders. Then there are the canny operators who took principled stands, ending up on the right side of history. As speculation rises that the resignation of a cabinet ‘big beast’ could yet again be the catalyst that sparks a coup against the current Prime Minister, here is your guide to the best and worst of Britain’s political departures:
1) John Profumo
The scandal that had it all. John Profumo, a Tory minister, was forced to resign in 1963 after lying to the House about his affair with former call girl Christine Keeler, who was two timing him with a Russian spy. The ensuing outrage led to ten years of repressed gossip being pasted across the frontpages. At the peak of the frenzy, leading judge Lord Denning ordered a cabinet minister to have his penis measured to determine whether he was the ‘headless man’ being fellated by the divorced Duchess of Argyll in a photo printed by the tabloids.
2) John Stonehouse
Tired of running from his creditors, hiding his affair from his wife and concealing his past as a Czech spy, this former Labour minister faked his own death in 1974. He disappeared, leaving his clothes and passport on a Miami beach. The papers speculated that he had been eaten by sharks, but while the Commons held a minute of silence for him, Stonehouse was cheerfully sipping a Pina Colada in Hawaii, reading his own obituaries. Stonehouse was re-discovered later that year in Australia, having been mistaken for Lord Lucan. He returned to Britain in disgrace and insisted on resuming his seat as an MP. He refused to resign until he was sent to prison for fraud in 1976.
3) Robin Cook
Robin Cook’s resignation in 2003 was a protest against Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq without UN support. Unlike his colleague Clare Short, he did not brief the press about his decision or vacillate in public. Instead, he politely stated his case to the House in a devastating speech that has achieved the rare feat of long outliving its maker. Dismissed at the time, Cook’s criticism of Blair’s pre-war planning is now considered astonishingly accurate. But for all its superficial dignity, Cook’s resignation was in some ways a disappointment. He knew that if he had resigned at an earlier stage he could have convinced colleagues to follow suit and perhaps stopped the war from going ahead. Nonetheless, he secured his place in history with a speech that has helped destroy Blair’s public standing.
4) Jeremy Thorpe
The Liberal leader was forced to quit his post in 1976 after the papers exposed his alleged involvement in a plot to murder former lover Norman Scott. The hapless hitman he hired managed to shoot a dog instead of his human target. The hitman later tried to rig the trial by mouthing answers at his alibi witness. He was eventually acquitted of attempted murder, but his private life was exposed and his credibility shot through. Despite several attempts to enter the House of Lords, he never managed to return to public life.
5) Geoffrey Howe
This was the resignation that finally felled Margaret Thatcher. In 1990, the former Commons leader delivered an excoriating speech to the House, filleting Thatcher’s policies and personality. According to former chancellor Nigel Lawson it was ‘quite simply the most devastating speech’ he had ever heard. After having survived eleven years in office, Thatcher lasted only fifteen more days as Prime Minister after Howe’s resignation.
6) The Duchess of Atholl
Katharine Marjory Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl, is a little-known heroine. In 1924 she descended from her seat of Blair Castle in Perthshire to enter parliament as Scotland’s first female MP, railroading her male colleagues into important reforms. In 1938 she quit parliament in protest against her government’s decision to appease Adolf Hitler, staging a single-handed campaign to topple Neville Chamberlain’s premiership. She came achingly close to success, and, within the year, had been proved right as the Second World War began.
7) Michael Heseltine
The defence secretary’s departure in 1986 ostensibly concerned the fate of a struggling helicopter company, but was in fact a tussle for power with then-PM Margaret Thatcher. He quit in the middle of a cabinet meeting, pausing only to comb his famous mane, before sweeping out of Number 10 to announce his departure to a startled camera operator. Hours later he had commandeered a room in the Ministry of Defence for a bullish press conference and then swash-buckled through a swathe of television appearances in which he aimed his guns squarely against the prime minister. The daring sortie established him as a king-over-the-water and loosened Thatcher’s grip on power.
8) Edwina Currie
The pugnacious, bolshy Edwina Currie is probably best known for her salacious affair with John Major, but she was once tipped as a rising Tory star. Her frontline career came to an abrupt halt in 1988, caused by her chronic tendency to pick a fight. Amidst a dangerous outbreak of salmonella, she told the lunchtime news that most egg production was infected, sparking a war with Britain’s traditionally Tory voting farmers that eventually forced Margaret Thatcher to show her the door.
9) Lord Lambton
Wealthy aristocrat Tony Lambton was the victim of the first proper tabloid stitch up. The louche frontbencher was filmed in 1973 sitting in bed smoking a joint with a naked prostitute beside him. A secret camera had been hidden in a small teddy bear. Lambton was stunned by the public reaction to his indiscretions, remarking to one interviewer that ‘surely all men frequent whores?’. He quit immediately and soon tired of Britain altogether, retreating to a palatial villa in Tuscany where he became known as the ‘King of Chiantishire’ for his legendary parties.
10) Damian Green
The only recent resignation worthy of this list, Green was one of the high-profile casualties of the Pestminster scandal. After being accused of inappropriate behaviour towards a young journalist, Theresa May’s close ally tried to resist the inevitable and fought on. He did not count on the return of an old enemy. During the investigation into the Pestminster accusations, embarrassing reports emerged that pornography had been found on Green’s computer during a police raid on his office in 2008. He denied claims that he watched the material, dismissing it as a smear perpetrated by the policeman in charge of the raid, who had lost his job shortly after it. Unfortunately for Green, his briefing was bungled and his denials contradictory. The prime minister reluctantly sacked him shortly before Christmas 2017.
Theo Barclay is the author of Fighters And Quitters: Great Political Resignations.