In Depth

Five dramatic political coups in recent British history

From Purnell’s plot to the curry house coup, May and Corbyn are by no means the first modern-day leaders to face mutinies

Parliament has reconvened following a six-week recess, but Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have had little respite from party infighting, backbench grumblings and open hostility over the summer.

With Brexit devolving into a bitter feud between the various wings of the Tory party and Labour in the process of tearing itself apart over the long-running anti-Semitism scandal, Westminster is awash with speculation over the future of both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

May is “facing a new threat to her leadership” from her former election guru, Sir Lynton Crosby, who is “orchestrating a nationwide campaign to discredit the PM’s Brexit plan - with the aim of installing Boris Johnson in Downing Street”, says the BBC.

Across the chamber, Corbyn is also returning to a fresh onslaught from his party members, with The Times reporting that “Labour MPs are planning a new vote of no confidence” over his handling of the anti-Semitism scandal engulfing the party.

With talk of takeovers and oustings dominating the headlines, The Week takes a look back at some of the more prominent political plots in recent memory.

2009: Purnell vs. Brown

During his short reign as PM, from 2007 to 2010, Gordon Brown was the subject of a number of plots.

“But possibly the most memorably cack-handed was the one that saw James Purnell jump out of the aeroplane – and watch as all of his colleagues who said they were right behind him stay put,” says journalist Nick Tyrone on his blog.

In 2009, Purnell resigned from his role as secretary of state for work and pensions, and called on Brown to step down for the good of Labour, following a poor showing by the party in that year’s European elections.

“Purnell hoped that after destabilising Brown, David Miliband would then also quit the cabinet, putting the final nail in Brown’s coffin,” according to the HuffPost. But the foreign secretary lost his nerve following an intervention by arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson, leaving Purnell out of a job in a failed one-man coup.

Tyrone concludes: “Lesson: never volunteer to be the first one out the door during an attempted coup.”

2006: the curry house coup

This 2006 plot to oust Tony Blair was dubbed the “curry house coup”, after Tom Watson, then defence minister and now deputy Labour leader, and co-conspirator Sion Simon “discussed the future of Tony Blair over a biryani at a Wolverhampton Indian restaurant”, The Daily Telegraph says.

“A letter signed by 17 previously loyal Labour MPs, calling for the prime minister’s resignation, was consequently dispatched,” the newspaper continues.

As the Daily Mail noted, “if the rendezvous was meant to be kept secret, the rebels failed spectacularly”, having “agreed to the owner’s demands to sign the visitors’ book”. Watson subsequently resigned.

2004: African coup

Attempts to thwart the reign of Gordon Brown as PM began long before he even got the job, as evidenced by the so-called African coup.

Blair had originally agreed to hand over the reins to then chancellor Brown after serving two terms, but in 2004 Blair “blind-sided” Brown by announcing he would serve a full third term, says HuffPost. 

Brownites in the party called Blair’s move the African coup because the PM waited until his rival was out of the country to make his move.

“Brown’s attempt to force Blair out had been so rubbish that Blair actually managed to stage a reverse coup on him,” HuffPost adds. 

1995: ‘put up or shut up’

“In 1995, Prime Minister John Major - tired of persistent rumours of a leadership challenge - decided to take the bull by the horns and trigger a surprise leadership election to silence his detractors,” the BBC says.

Up until then, Tory backbenchers had raised concerns over Major’s ability to unite and lead the party, which was tearing itself apart over the UK’s role in the EU.

“Put up or shut up” were the words that Major used upon announcing his resignation as Conservative Party leader - but not as PM - triggering a leadership election.

Eurosceptic MP John Redwood then resigned as secretary of state for Wales and announced a surprise bid to run against Major. The BBC adds: “This was unexpected by many, as the PM had said there had been assurances from his cabinet that none would stand against him.”

Redwood was crushed in a landslide for Major, and was not featured in the PM’s subsequent cabinet reshuffle.

1990: the end of Thatcher

The only successful coup against a standing leader in this list, the era of Margaret Thatcher was brought to an end in an ousting orchestrated by two titans in her government - Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine.

On 1 November 1990, Howe, one of Thatcher’s longest-serving ministers, “resigned over differences with the party leader over Europe”, the BBC reports, triggering “the beginning of the end of the 11-year Thatcher reign”.

“Heseltine seized on the opportunity to challenge the prime minister in the ensuing leadership contest, from which she would eventually withdraw and John Major emerge as her successor,” the news site continues.


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