Home at the Top
Fifty years ago, the Queen asked the Tory peer and then Foreign Secretary Lord Home if he could form a government following the sudden resignation of Harold Macmillan.
Preston Witts, former parliamentary correspondent, recalls Home's time at the top.
The emergence of the 14th Earl of Home as Tory prime minister is one of the more bizarre episodes in modern British political history, not least because of the cloak-and-dagger manoeuvrings surrounding it and the momentous impact it had on the Conservative Party itself.
Home's unexpected propulsion into the limelight came after Harold Macmillan became ill just before the Conservative Party conference in early October 1963.
Macmillan's illness, which turned out to be far less serious than originally thought, led to his resignation as prime minister and to Home's elevation to the top job.
Apart from the unseemly behind-the-scenes machinations in the Conservative Party to try to stop Home becoming PM, and the high profile cabinet resignations that followed his appointment, this was the last time that a Tory leader emerged via the process Iain Macleod later called "the magic circle".
It was a mysterious ritual by which soundings of senior colleagues resulted in a "winner" coming forward, rather like the College of Cardinals choosing a Pope.
Home later made sure his own successor was elected by a secret ballot of all Tory MPs - a hitherto unheard-of idea in the Conservative Party.
My own personal recollections of Sir Alec were in his role as the elder statesman of foreign affairs under Edward Heath's government in the early 1970s.
He'd accepted Heath's invitation to return to the Foreign Office - which by now was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)- and to the foreign policy post he'd held before becoming prime minister in 1963.
My view of him from the press gallery was of a man entirely at ease with himself and doing the job he preferred above all others.
His demeanour was one of relaxed confidence - of a man well in command of his brief and with an air of authority that reinforced this stately countenance.
At that time he wore well-cut suits and had a natural elegance about him.
He exuded noblesse oblige, and it would have been difficult to imagine anyone else in a Conservative government fulfilling that role at the FCO at that time.
It was a completely different picture of him from the rather awkward image he projected during his time as prime minister.
Even the manner of his becoming prime minister had a strong whiff of gaucheness about it, when he suddenly appeared - as a relatively little-known politician tucked away in the Lords - as the front-runner for a job he looked as though he'd never applied for.
And it came about because of a sudden resignation by Harold Macmillan that created a crisis in the Conservative Party which had long term effects on the party's electoral fortunes.
One view is that if RA (Rab) Butler had got the job, instead of Home, the Tories would have won the general election of October 1964.
Furthermore there's a view that the refusal of Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell to serve under Home weakened his government and also played a part in the Tories losing the 1964 election (an election, incidentally, that Home lost by only a whisker).
Iain Macleod - the only Conservative at that time who Labour leader Harold Wilson feared (because of his rapier-sharp wit) - has gradually emerged as the chief villain of this piece.
His famous January 1964 article in The Spectator - the magazine of which he became editor after his resignation from the cabinet - was seen at the time as immensely damaging to the Conservatives, as much as anything because of its mockery of "the magic circle" and its washing of Tory dirty linen in public.
In more recent years evidence has come to light that Macleod's rebellious role in this affair is not as straightforward as he portrayed it at the time, and that his deviousness fully justified Lord Salisbury's description of him as "too clever by a half".
But that, as they say, is another story...
Once confirmed in his position as prime minister, Lord Home renounced his peerage and became Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
He stood for election in the safe Conservative seat of Kinross and West Perthshire, won it comfortably and became a member of the House of Commons.
His year-long occupancy of 10 Downing Street was not marked by any major dramas.
There were various issues bubbling along, such as the gathering crisis in Rhodesia (which later led to the regime of Ian Smith declaring independence), but the chief domestic development was the abolition of resale price maintenance, the system by which distributors agreed to sell a manufacturer's product at a certain price.
It was decided that this cosy price-fixing arrangement was against the public interest and an act of parliament outlawed it.
Sir Alec was not totally at ease in his new job. His background was foreign affairs and he was widely respected - especially by the Soviet Union - for his shrewdness and diplomatic guile.
But on one crucial aspect of his new role - the economy - he was, by his own admission, a bit of a duffer.
He once famously declared: "When I have to read economic documents I have to have a box of matches and start moving them into position to simplify and illustrate the points to myself."
Unlike his political opponent Harold Wilson he was also uneasy on television.
Although many who knew him were aware of his political acuity, his image was that of an out-of-touch toff, happier on the grouse moor than in the corridors of power.
He was the last Old Etonian leader of the Conservative Party until David Cameron's election more than 40 years later.
In the early days of the British satire boom he was an easy target for the youthful iconoclasts of That Was the Week That Was and Private Eye.
He was variously described as "a cretin", "an imbecile" and "the animated skull".
And on being introduced to Sir Alec at a reception, the television presenter Bill Grundy - a man not known for his sobriety - told him: "I'm ashamed to be a citizen of a country of which you are prime minister."
Even though there were no huge political dramas during his stint at Number 10, there was a minor personal one in April 1964 when two left-wing students from the University of Aberdeen plotted to kidnap him.
They followed him to the house of some friends in Scotland where he was staying and when he answered the door they told him of their plan to kidnap him. He told them: "I suppose you realise if you do, the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300."
He treated the students to some beer and they abandoned their harebrained scheme.
There was, however, another drama of considerable significance that occurred around the time of the "kidnap plot" which did not become public for another 15 years or so - the unmasking of the art historian Sir Anthony Blunt, the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, as a Soviet spy.
As part of a deal Sir Anthony was able to keep his job working for the Queen, which he continued to do until 1972.
It was finally admitted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that Blunt had been a communist agent passing British secrets to the Russians.
He was immediately stripped of his knighthood and his reputation was in tatters.
He died in 1983 at the age of 75. Both Sir Alec - as prime minister at the time of Blunt's confession - and the Queen were made aware of Blunt's role as a traitor.
After Edward Heath became Conservative leader in 1965, Sir Alec returned to the more familiar pastures of foreign affairs and became shadow foreign secretary.
I recall that in the summer of 1968 he spoke at a Conservative meeting in a marquee on the village green at Upper Quinton near Stratford-upon-Avon.
His entrance to the event was introduced by a piper in full Scottish regalia.
It became clear only some time later that the man playing the bagpipes was the secretary of the local Labour Party!
During his speech Sir Alec alluded to one of his favourite topics - that an Englishman's home was his castle...
After becoming foreign secretary in 1970 following Edward Heath's surprise election victory, Sir Alec reinforced his reputation as a master of foreign policy.
In 1971 he showed his toughness - and caused a stir - by expelling 105 Soviet diplomats from Britain on the grounds that they were spies.
At the end of the day this did not seem to affect his workmanlike relationship with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.
Although he himself had been mercilessly satirised he was quite capable of dishing it out himself.
In 1973, when Labour had secured a censure debate condemning the Tory government's official acceptance of an impending visit to London by the fascist prime minister of Portugal, Marcello Caetano, Sir Alec reeled off a whole string of statements praising the relationship between the two countries - only to reveal that these remarks had been made by Harold Wilson when he himself had been PM.
As one journalist said afterwards: "We'd been expecting a dose of realpolitik - but we got a mickey-take of Wilson instead!"
Apart from occupying the post of prime minister for one of the shortest periods in the 20th Century, Sir Alec had one other distinguishing feature - he is the only British PM to have played first-class cricket.
He was an all-rounder (batsman and bowler) for Middlesex, the MCC and the University of Oxford - but that really is another story...