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date: 21 September 2023

Magic circlefree

(act. 1963)

Magic circlefree

(act. 1963)
  • D. R. Thorpe

Magic circle (act. 1963), was a phrase used by the Conservative politician Iain Macleod in an article in The Spectator on 17 January 1964 about the tory leadership contest of October 1963. By referring to a 'magic circle' Macleod sought to draw attention to a coterie of nine men from the party's élite whom he thought responsible (and, in his opinion, against the majority wishes of the cabinet) for the selection of Alec Douglas-Home, fourteenth earl of Home, as the successor to Harold Macmillan as party leader and prime minister. At the time of the selection, which became public on 17 October 1963, Macleod was the party's joint chairman and the leader of the Commons; the appointment in favour of Home denied the leadership to Macleod's preferred candidate, the deputy prime minister and first secretary of state R. A. Butler, and Macleod subsequently declined to sit in Home's cabinet. Ostensibly a review of Randolph Churchill's book The Fight for the Tory Leadership, his Spectator article 'The tory leadership' was in fact the opportunity for Macleod to vent his anger about the outcome of the complex events following Macmillan's sudden illness and subsequent resignation as prime minister, announced on 10 October 1963. The article, which appeared in The Spectator as an editorial leader, and not among the book reviews, did immense damage to the Conservative Party. Indeed Home believed it was the single most important factor in the party's narrow defeat in the general election of October 1964 (private information, Lord Home to the author, 9 Aug 1990). Ultimately Iain Macleod suffered too from the fallout. In its obituary of Macleod The Times observed: 'It was a political failing on his part that he took so long to appreciate that he had disqualified himself for the highest office' (22 July 1970).

One sentence by Macleod resonated over the years and entered the dictionaries of quotations: 'It is some measure of the tightness of the magic circle on this occasion that neither the Chancellor of the Exchequer [Reginald Maudling] nor the Leader of the House of Commons [Macleod] had any inkling of what was happening' (Macleod, The Spectator, 17 Jan 1964). The political analyst Robert McKenzie responded by saying that Macleod—in mid-October still a potential candidate for the leadership himself—'did not realise the extent to which all possible contenders for the succession are, as it were, kept in a state of semi-purdah while the soundings are conducted' (McKenzie, 594). McKenzie felt Macleod showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how the so-called ‘customary processes’ at the time operated. (An electoral system for choosing the Conservative leader was not introduced until 1965, partly because of Macleod's accusations.)

The tenor of Macleod's article curiously suggests that he assumed that the first choices of the Cabinet Ministers would (and should be) of decisive importance … After more than a decade in Cabinet, Macleod appears to have forgotten that on the occasion of the choice of a new Leader it is the machinery of party and not of government which takes precedence.


Other responses were more forthright. Lord Salisbury had famously declared Macleod to be 'too clever by half' in a speech in the House of Lords in 1961 (Hansard 5L, 229.307, 7 March 1961). The ‘magic circle’ article now prompted more criticism in like vein. The journalist Peregrine Worsthorne observed that 'what is boring and irrelevant is the suggestion of an upper class conspiracy, particularly coming from a man who has sedulously and successfully modelled himself on that class, and whose complaints against the magic circle only began when he failed to square it in his own interests' (Sunday Telegraph, 26 Jan 1964). As Macleod's sympathetic biographer Robert Shepherd conceded: 'He would never be forgiven for using the phrase “the magic circle”' (Shepherd, 365). The fact that the phrase was used 'in an election year' was particularly damaging (Oxford DNB).

The background to Macleod's article lay in the uncertain state of the Conservative Party in the summer of 1963. After the Profumo scandal in June 1963 Macmillan decided that he could not retire, as he had previously considered, to allow his successor time to prepare for the general election, due by October 1964. Rather he must soldier on. Had he retired then, the next tory leader would almost certainly have been Reginald Maudling. By the autumn the situation was less clear-cut. Maudling's star had mysteriously faded and other figures were now in the frame whenever a vacancy arose. In May 1923 George V had been faced with a clear choice between Stanley Baldwin and Lord Curzon; and in January 1957 Elizabeth II had had to decide whether to invite Harold Macmillan or R. A. Butler to form a new government. In both instances the palace acted after taking advice from senior Conservative figures, a pattern repeated in October 1963. In contrast to 1923 and 1957 advice to the queen from the outgoing prime minister in October 1963 was based on soundings of the party both inside and outside parliament.

In many people's minds Butler, a former home secretary and now deputy prime minister, was the natural successor to Macmillan. However, in Conservative leadership contests opponents of a candidate prove more important in the final outcome than supporters. So it was to prove for Butler. In the summer of 1963, well before Macmillan resigned, the news was conveyed to Butler by John Granville Morrison (1906–1996; later Lord Margadale of Islay), chairman of the 1922 committee, that 'the chaps [the back-benchers] won't have you' (Goodhart, 191). That had nothing to do with a supposed magic circle, or any Etonian conspiracy, and it would be absurd to suggest that the 1922 committee misrepresented back-bench opinion. Although Macleod harboured hopes of succeeding to the leadership himself, certainly next time round, and perhaps, depending on how things unfolded, even in October 1963, in the first instance he was known as a Butler adherent. The reality, as was revealed later, was more complicated.

In the summer of 1963, when the future leadership of the party was the burning topic among Conservative MPs, many felt that the party should jump a generation and opt for one of the young turks whom Macmillan had brought on: Edward Heath, Maudling, or Macleod himself. The situation was muddied, however, by the passing of the Peerage Act on 31 July 1963, which allowed members of the House of Lords to disclaim their titles. As a result Alec Douglas-Home and Quintin Hogg, second Viscount Hailsham, were now papabile if they decided to stand for the leadership, as eventually both did. Indeed the political analyst Anthony Howard had already predicted this exact scenario in an article 'Mr Home and Mr Hogg?' (New Statesman, 14 Dec 1962) and suggested that one or other of them would prevail. All previous bets were off and as a result the Conservative Party, and eventually the queen, would be faced with a difficult choice between at least six possible figures as the next prime minister. Feelings ran high and continued to do so.

When it became clear that Macmillan could not continue, but before he had formally resigned as prime minister, the palace made it clear that it wished to be presented with one name. Sir Edward Ford, the queen's assistant private secretary, was the conduit between the palace and 10 Downing Street over the next few days. He outlined to Macmillan, now in the King Edward VII Hospital in London for a prostate operation, the preferred process, which became known as 'You Choose, We Send For' (Thorpe, Alec Douglas-Home, 274). It was clear to both Ford and Macmillan that the queen at all costs must not be drawn into the consultation process, but would remain above the inevitable political haggling.

Faced with this request from the palace Macmillan decided that a comprehensive consultation of the entire Conservative Party, both in parliament and outside, should now take place. The lord chancellor, Reginald Manningham-Buller, Lord Dilhorne, was deputed to consult members of the cabinet, a task he fulfilled in Butler's vivid description 'like a large Clumber spaniel sniffing the bottom of the hedgerows' (Oxford DNB). The chief whip, Martin Redmayne, would see all other ministers and members of the House of Commons; Redmayne's counterpart in the upper house, Michael Hicks-Beach, second Earl St Aldwyn, would see members of the Lords who were regular supporters of the party; and Oliver Poole, Lord Poole, joint party chairman (with Macleod), would speak to Lord Chelmer and Mrs Shepherd, representing the National Union of Conservative Associations. If there was a magic circle, it was a very large one.

Macmillan's letter outlining his intention to resign was read to the Conservative Party, just beginning its annual conference at Blackpool, by Lord Home, by chance president of the national union that year. The key phrase, which entered the political lexicon just as decisively as Macleod's magic circle, came in the penultimate sentence: 'I hope that it will soon be possible for the customary processes of consultation to be carried on within the party about its future leadership.' The problem was that this 'implied precedents where none existed' (Bogdanor, Selection, 75). All previous contested selections for the tory leadership in the twentieth century—in 1911, 1923, 1940, and 1957—had had their own particular characteristics, and there were no 'customary processes'. That of 1963 was to prove no exception.

The nearest parallel, particularly in the outcome, was with the contest of November 1911. There were two front runners that year—Austen Chamberlain and Walter Long—from different wings of the party. Both had their supporters, but both, significantly, had implacable opponents. In the end a compromise candidate, Andrew Bonar Law, emerged as the candidate considered most likely to unite the party. In 1963 R. A. Butler was the equivalent of Austen Chamberlain, not least in the fact that, like Chamberlain, 'he always played the game and always lost it' (Lord Birkenhead, quoted in Aitken, xiii), and Lord Hailsham was the Walter Long. Like Bonar Law, Home became leader because his support was not confined to one specific wing of the party. In addition Home was several people's second choice, and few people's last choice.

Three questions were put to the members of the party in October 1963: who was their first choice, who was their second choice, and which names would they oppose (Thorpe, Uncrowned Prime Ministers, 233). Much controversy was later generated when it emerged that those questioned had been asked what their response would be if Alec Douglas-Home was a candidate, which many assumed he was not. This process has aptly been described by Vernon Bogdanor as 'guided democracy' (Selection, 76). After the consultations had been completed Macmillan prepared a memorandum for the queen, outlining the findings of these extensive consultations, later called the ‘Tuesday memorandum’. There followed a ‘midnight meeting’ of aggrieved Butler supporters on 17 October, foremost among them Macleod and Enoch Powell, who both subsequently refused to serve in Home's cabinet. In response Macmillan wrote an updated version, the 'Thursday memorandum' (Thorpe, Alec Douglas-Home, 301), which gave details of this dissent. Despite the ‘midnight meeting’, on 18 October Home was invited by the queen to try to form a government, which he was able to do when both Butler and Maudling agreed to serve in his cabinet. Although Macleod, and others, believed that Macmillan had manipulated the result to ensure Home's success, as Bogdanor has demonstrated 'The outcome, the selection of Lord Home, cannot be said seriously to have misrepresented Conservative opinion at the time' (Bogdanor, Monarchy, 96).

Macleod though was furious for a variety of reasons. He was even more angered when it became clear that Macmillan had helped Randolph Churchill over his book on the events of October 1963. Macleod's response was an explosion waiting to happen and it duly appeared in the Spectator article. Although Macleod toned down some of the sharper observations of his first draft—'This is a bad book and to have written it is a major disservice to the Tory Party'—his article was a political earthquake, the seismic effects of which have rumbled on into the twenty-first century. He described Randolph Churchill's book as 'Mr Macmillan's trailer for the screenplay of his memoirs', and, having listed those he considered key figures in the decision in favour of HomeChurchill, Macmillan, Hailsham, Home, Dilhorne, St Aldwyn, Poole, Morrison, and Redmayne—added that 'eight of the nine people mentioned in the last sentence went to Eton' (the exception being Redmayne). The idea of Eton providing a privileged caucus of backstairs fixers was firmly established in the political consciousness. Ironically one of the figures Macleod thus criticized, the chief whip, Martin Redmayne, was instrumental 'in persuading the hunt [against Macleod] to be called off and protecting Mr Macleod from the wrath of party loyalists' (Sunday Times, 26 Jan 1964). For many Macleod was now persona non grata and there were embarrassing scenes for a long time at party events he attended. Even the normally loyal, indeed adoring, constituency party in Skipton, the town in which Macleod had grown up, passed a vote of censure against him.

As the consultations had been conducted in private, fuller details of what had actually happened only emerged some years later, notably with the publication in 1989 of the second and final volume of Macmillan's official biography by Alistair Horne. To general astonishment, even disbelief, it was revealed from the voting figures of cabinet preferences produced by Lord Dilhorne for Macmillan that Macleod had actually voted for Home (Horne, 560–61). Accusations followed that Dilhorne had wilfully misrepresented the figures. This was not the case. In 2004 Nigel Lawson published a detailed account—'The sick PM, his waiting successor and the unexpected assassin'—based on talks with Macleod at the Blackpool conference in 1963, and with Sir Philip Woodfield, the number 10 secretary who had assisted Macmillan over the soundings, that confirmed the accuracy of Dilhorne's record.

Why then did Macleod write the magic circle article? As Lawson recorded:

In reality, Macleod had too many enemies in his own party, not least in Cabinet, to stand a chance. But he did not think so himself, and his game plan was essentially to support Home in order to stop not only Hailsham but Butler as well, and then, when Home decided that he was not prepared to take the job on after all, to allow his own name to go forward to break the deadlock. Hence his vote for Home in the Dilhorne soundings, and hence his fury, and public support for Butler—as belated as it was public—when he realised that he had been, to coin a phrase, too clever by half.

Sunday Telegraph, 3 Oct 2004

Macleod was not to be the Bonar Law. Indeed, unlike Bonar Law in 1911, he totally divided the party and his article caused immense damage to Conservative prospects at the forthcoming election. As Lawson concludes:

At the very least it can be said that Macleod played a large part in ensuring both that Home rather than Butler became Prime Minister in October 1963, and that Home and the Conservative Party lost office a year later: a remarkable double.


When Butler, whom Macleod ostensibly supported, both at Blackpool and in his Spectator article, heard of the Dilhorne figures, he was not at all surprised. 'Macleod was very shifty, much more than you think', he said (Thorpe, Supermac, 575). The kernel of truth about the so-called magic circle is that those who supported Butler were on the whole political professionals; those who supported Home were those for whom politics was a duty. The only exception to this was Edward Heath, a political professional who supported Home. In a sign of how strong feelings were, Sir Edward Boyle, a Butler supporter, later commented, 'You may draw your own conclusions' (private information).

Iain Macleod was a talented and powerful figure in post-war Conservative politics, a persuasive orator, and an inspirational hero to the liberally progressive One Nation strand of tory thinking. Indeed Macmillan had described him as the true inheritor of the Disraelian tradition. As most of Butler's articulate, and affronted, supporters were from this wing of the party Macleod's article was accorded a credence that still endures. However, Macleod divided opinion within the party and more traditional tories never trusted him. This was particularly true of the influential chairman of the 1922 committee, John Morrison, who always regarded Macleod with a cautious reserve, a view the Spectator article only served to confirm (private information, Lord Margadale). Despite his distinguished and pioneering work at the ministries of health and labour, and above all the Colonial Office, not to mention his preparation in opposition from 1964 to 1970 in the development of tory economic policy for the Heath government, it was Macleod's fate to be remembered above all for his comment about the magic circle and for Salisbury's comment in 1961 that he had been 'too clever by half'.


  • W. M. Aitken, Men and power, 1917–1918 (1956)
  • V. Bogdanor, ‘The selection of the party leader’, Conservative century: the Conservative Party since 1900, ed. A. Seldon and S. Ball (1994)
  • V. Bogdanor, The monarchy and the constitution (1995)
  • D. J. Dutton, ‘Buller, Reginald Edward Manningham-’, Oxford DNB (2004)
  • N. Fisher, Iain Macleod (1973)
  • I. Gilmour, ‘Macleod, Iain Norman’, Oxford DNB (2004)
  • P. Goodhart, The 1922: the story of the 1922 committee (1973)
  • A. Horne, Macmillan, 2: 1957–1986 (1989)
  • House of Lords debates, Hansard (7 March 1961)
  • A. Howard, ‘Mr Home and Mr Hogg’, New Statesman (14 Dec 1962)
  • N. Lawson, ‘The sick PM, his waiting successor and the unexpected assassin’, Sunday Telegraph (3 Oct 2004)
  • obituary of I. Macleod, The Times (22 July 1970)
  • J. Margach, Sunday Times (26 Jan 1964)
  • R. McKenzie, British political parties: the distribution of power within the Conservative and Labour parties, 2nd rev. edn (1967)
  • R. Shepherd, Iain Macleod (1994)
  • D. R. Thorpe, The uncrowned prime ministers (1980)
  • D. R. Thorpe, Alec Douglas-Home (1996)
  • D. R. Thorpe, Supermac: the life of Harold Macmillan (2010)
  • P. Worsthorne, Sunday Telegraph (26 Jan 1964)
  • Sir Austen Chamberlain, papers, U. Birm.
  • Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, papers, Trinity Cam.
  • Lord Home of the Hirsel, papers, the Hirsel, Coldstream
  • Harold Macmillan, papers, Bodl. Oxf.
  • Lord Selwyn-Lloyd, papers, CAC Cam.
  • personal knowledge (2011)
  • private information (2011)
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