Why you should care

Because leading from the front isn’t always for winners.

Soundly beaten by his youthful opponent for the Conservative Party leadership, David Davis put on a brave face as David Cameron’s win was confirmed at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in December 2005. Knowing his chance was gone, the 56-year-old generously predicted that his rival would be the man to bring the party back to power.

As he came to terms with his humbling loss — Cameron won almost 68 percent of party members’ votes — it was hard to imagine this was the same David Davis who’d been favored to win just two months earlier. But like others before him, Davis had fallen victim to the curse of the front-runner.

There’s every chance an unexpected and deadly rival is waiting quietly in the shadows.

When it comes to winning British elections, history confirms it’s the Conservatives — the party of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill — who have long been top dogs in the U.K., with Conservative prime ministers ruling for 57 years of the 20th century. Currently in power under Cameron, they’ll be in office until at least 2020. But taking control of the party itself has long proved unpredictable.

Back in 1975, veteran Willie Whitelaw was the favorite … only to lose to the underestimated Thatcher. When the party chose its next leader 15 years later, Michael Heseltine emerged as the front-runner, but suffered defeat to the lesser-known John Major. A decade ago, Davis was hailed as the likely winner, before being swept aside by a 39-year-old Cameron.

Winners of party leadership votes tend to be the those “no one thought of 18 months earlier,” Channel 4 News political correspondent Michael Crick tells OZY. “You wouldn’t have predicted John Major 18 months beforehand.” The longtime journalist blames the limited attention span of the modern media. “We get tired of people very quickly,” Crick adds, noting how “in three-quarters of leadership elections it’s the freshest candidate” — and notably the one with the least amount of legislative experience — who wins.

One of the most dramatic twists of fate to be inflicted on a Conservative leadership front-runner occurred in May 1997. With Prime Minister Major facing inevitable defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s revitalized Labour, dashing Defense Secretary Michael Portillo was already identified as the man to lead the Conservatives back. Thatcher herself told the young politician: “Great things are expected of you. You will not disappoint us.” But Portillo’s ambitions went up in flames when he suffered a shock defeat on election night, losing his north London parliamentary seat to Labour. Not only had the Conservatives suffered their worst election defeat in more than 90 years — the man expected to be the future party leader was their most high-profile casualty.

While Portillo’s misfortune can be blamed on a historically disastrous night for the Conservatives, other forces have come into play when destroying the hopes of fellow former front-runners for the top job. Heseltine, for instance, wasn’t forgiven by many colleagues for bringing down Thatcher after challenging her for the leadership in 1990. “He who wields the knife never wears the crown,” he later reflected. In the case of Davis, who had long been considered the favorite before the 2005 contest, many believe his chances began to evaporate after a poorly received speech at the party’s annual conference that October. While deemed unproven by many, Cameron — elected to Parliament only four years earlier — stole the show at the same event. It’s also been suggested that Davis was hurt by past clashes with senior party colleagues, who now smelled revenge. The subsequent contest eventually became a straight fight between the two men for more than six weeks, with Davis’ support falling away by the day.

So, will the front-runners’ curse strike again? With Cameron having vowed to stand down before the 2020 election, the leadership has regularly been billed as a battle between his right-hand man, Chancellor George Osborne, and the colorful politician Boris Johnson, currently London’s mayor. Johnson’s recent decision to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union — directly at odds with Cameron and Osborne — has been viewed by many as a bid to bolster support among “Eurosceptic” party members, whose votes could determine the future leadership result.

But sticking to his theory about a fresh-faced outsider, Crick believes neither Johnson or Osborne will end up getting the job. Mike Smithson, who, as editor of U.K. website politicalbetting.com, closely follows betting trends surrounding the British Parliament, also predicts doom for Osborne: “My reading is he’ll end up getting to the final two in the next leadership election, but he’ll lose the vote with party members.” While Crick and Smithson seem confident the front-runners’ jinx will strike again, they can’t identify the eventual likely winner.

Johnson and Osborne’s supporters will be hoping history doesn’t repeat itself, should either man still be the favorite when Cameron departs. But judging by the Conservative Party’s recent past, both politicians would be forgiven for anxiously looking over their shoulders: There’s every chance an unexpected and deadly rival is waiting quietly in the shadows.

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