Following the Suez Crisis in 1956, Anthony Eden the Conservative Prime Minister became unpopular and resigned early the following year to be succeeded by Harold Macmillan. At this stage, the Labour Party, with Hugh Gaitskell having taken over as leader from Clement Attlee just after the 1955 election, enjoyed large opinion poll leads over the Conservatives, and it looked as if they could win.
The Liberals also had a new leader in Jo Grimond, meaning that all three parties would contest the election with a new leader at the helm.
However, the Conservatives enjoyed an upturn in fortunes as the economy improved under Macmillan, and his personal approval ratings remained high. By September, 1958, the Conservatives had moved ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.
This would be the first election in some time taking place after all of the three main parties changed their leaders. The Conservatives fought under the slogan "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it" and were aided by a pre-election economic boom. Macmillan very effectively "summed up" the mood of the British public when he said that most of the people had "never had it so good". Macmillan was very popular and was described as being a politician of the centre ground, he himself had once held a constituency in the north (Stockton-on-Tees) during the 1930s that had experienced large scale unemployment and poverty. The first week of polling put the Tories comfortably ahead of Labour by over 5%, which narrowed as the election progressed. The Labour Party fought a generally effective campaign, with television broadcasts masterminded by Tony Benn under the umbrella of their manifesto entitled "Britain belongs to you", which accused the Tories of complacency over the growing gap between the rich and poor. Hugh Gaitskell made a mistake by declaring that a Labour government would not raise taxes if it came to power. This was despite the fact that the Labour manifesto contained pledges to increase spending, especially with regard to raising pensions. This led voters to doubt Labour's spending plans, and is usually cited as a key reason for their defeat.
Early on election night it became clear that the Conservative government had been returned with an increased majority. However, there were swings to Labour in parts of North West England, and in Scotland. For the 4th time in a row the Conservatives increased their number of seats at a general election, despite a slight drop in their share of the vote. For Labour the result was disappointing, despite appearing more united than they had in recent years under Gaitskell, the party had failed for the 3rd time to win an election. Future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was elected for the first time in Finchley.
The Daily Mirror, despite being a staunch supporter of the Labour Party, wished Macmillan "good luck" on its front page after his win.
The BBC's election coverage, presented by Richard Dimbleby, was shown on BBC Parliament on 9 October 2009 to mark the 50th anniversary of the election.
From Conservative to Labour (6 seats): Ayrshire Central, Glasgow Craigton, Glasgow Scotstoun, Lanark, Oldham East and Rochdale
From Conservative to Liberal (1 seat): Devon North
From Conservative to Independent (1 seat): Caithness and Sutherland
From Labour to Conservative (28 seats): Acton, Barons Court, Birmingham All Saints, Birmingham Sparkbrook, Birmingham Yardley, Brierley Hill, Bristol North East, Bristol North West, Clapham, Cleveland, Coventry South, Derbyshire South East, Holborn and St Pancras South, Keighley, Lowestoft, Meriden, Newcastle upon Tyne East, Nottingham West, Reading, Rochester and Chatham, Rugby, Swansea West, The Hartlepools, Uxbridge, Wellingborough and Willesden West
From Liberal to Labour (1 seat): Carmarthen
From Sinn Féin to Conservative (2 seats): Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Mid-Ulster