Choosing a Prime Minister: their exits and their entrances


Seventeen of the Prime Ministers to take office since 1900 left office for reasons other than defeat at a general election. In this blogpost, Rodney Brazier, author of the recently published Choosing a Prime Minister, reflects on how those Prime Ministers have secured and surrendered the keys to Number 10, and the Queen’s role in their appointment.

It’s unlikely that Boris Johnson spends much time thinking about the next election. Thanks largely to him the government obtained an 80-seat Commons majority at the polls just over six months ago, and each member of his Cabinet gave pledges of personal loyalty before getting their jobs. What could possibly go wrong? But if any of his close advisers were to read my book Choosing a Prime Minister then brows might furrow. The book notes that 17 of the two-dozen individuals who have occupied Number 10 since 1900 were forced to leave without any push from the voters. Illness or old age, revolts in the governing party, loss of the confidence of the House of Commons, or personal political blunders all contributed to that high total. Indeed, three of Johnson’s four immediate predecessors (Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May) quit without the electorate’s help. Ill health and party coups were the main, but not at all the only, causes of all those 17 exits. Johnson himself had a brush with death in March. I would bet good money against the present Prime Minister leading the Conservatives into the next general election. 

Now, the optimist in Downing Street might brush aside all this gloomster stuff by asserting that surely those overall figures are skewed because of events that happened a long time ago. After all, for at least the first half of the last century politicians were in their sixties when they became Prime Minister, whereas premiers since Harold Wilson in 1964 have been younger, including Johnson who was 55 when he entered Number 10. Indeed Wilson himself, Edward Heath, John Major, Tony Blair, and David Cameron were all in their forties. Life expectancy has become longer. Lifestyles were generally less healthy decades ago, especially smoking: Heath was, I think, the first non-smoker to enter Downing Street. Such an explanation is partly true as to health, but it doesn’t explain the whole political history. In the second half of the last century eight Prime Ministers had to quit without any consultation of the electorate. Winston Churchill was 80 and in failing health in 1955, and he was eased out by colleagues and family; Anthony Eden (1957) and Harold Macmillan (1963) were both ill, the latter being the last Prime Minister to resign because of illness; Harold Wilson left in 1976 in what he termed a retirement, a description with which I disagree: his mental powers were lessening, he had markedly aged since his defeat in 1970, and he was drinking heavily; and Margaret Thatcher (1990), Tony Blair (2007), and Theresa May (2019) all resigned because their parties, to a greater or lesser degree, demanded that they go. Losing the EU referendum in 2016 made it politically impossible for David Cameron to carry on as Prime Minister.

The Palace is unperturbed

Although such events might occasionally trouble some people, changes of Prime Minister no longer cause even mild concern at Buckingham Palace. The Queen has so far appointed 13 Prime Ministers, having inherited Churchill. Fortunately for parliamentary democracy the monarch will (perhaps from caution I should add ‘probably’) no longer have to use her own discretion in making choices. That is thanks to a slow, fitful, but clear reduction in the head of state’s constitutional power, which must have been to the Queen’s personal satisfaction. As a matter of law a new Prime Minister only enters Number 10 after the royal prerogative of appointment has been exercised. It had to be used on three occasions during her reign without a prior party election. Anthony Eden became Prime Minister in 1955 without controversy: he had been Churchill’s heir apparent since 1942. Harold Macmillan was appointed rather than R A Butler in 1957, the Queen’s Private Secretary having taken limited soundings, and the Cabinet having been polled individually and given overwhelming support to the older man. Home’s disputed succession to Macmillan seven years later was conducted more or less in public. The procedures which were followed (described by the stricken premier as the party’s ‘customary processes of consultation’); although organised and comprehensive, they did not produce the unquestionable result of a secret ballot. Critics of the outcome claimed that it all had been designed to block Butler. In all three of those cases the monarch acted on the Conservative Party’s advice, inadequately as its opinion might have been gauged. A formal balloting system was adopted by the party in 1965 so that all intra-party transfers of power now follow a democratic ballot, as has always been the case with the Labour Party. The one possible difficulty would arise after a Prime Minister’s death. Robert Hazell considered such a problem in a Unit blogpost about the possible death or incapacity of Boris Johnson during his recent illness, and I deal with such a prospect fully in the book. 

Hung parliaments? No problem

The three hung parliaments elected during the Queen’s reign – two of them at the last four contests – have presented no difficulty for her because politicians themselves have rightly taken the necessary political decisions. The impasse in February 1974 was worked around over a long weekend by the political parties without assistance from the Palace. Before the 2010 election the precedents to be applied after an inconclusive poll had already been explained in a published draft document, which would be included as a chapter in The Cabinet Manual the following year. Indeed, to underline the Queen’s remoteness from the political decision-making, she stayed at Windsor Castle throughout the five days of coalition negotiations. May’s personally disastrous decisions to hold an early election led to an agreement in principle with the DUP within hours of the close of polls, and it gave her government a Commons majority of sorts. And the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 abrogated the prerogative of dissolution. The House of Commons itself now controls when its life should end or, as Johnson three times found out in 2019, should not (the death warrant for that Act was signed by both the Conservatives and Labour in their 2019 election manifestos). All those old academic arguments about whether a monarch could ever refuse or insist on a general election can be shoved into the attic of British constitutional history – depending on the terms of any legislation that replaces the 2011 statute. The prerogative of prorogation, however, remains and as R (Miller) v. The Prime Minister (2019) so satisfyingly told us, ministerial advice to exercise it is justiciable and can therefore be challenged in the courts. 

Thus the choice of a Prime Minister, the decision to approve the holding of a general election, and the fallout from a hung parliament, no longer trouble the unelected monarch, and rightly so. As a consequence I am sure that all at Buckingham Palace would concur with the sentiment expressed in Hamlet: ‘For this relief much thanks’.

Who is loyal to whom?

Someone (was it Lord Kilmuir?) is supposed to have claimed that loyalty is the Conservatives’ secret weapon. Try telling that to Chamberlain, Heath, Thatcher, Duncan Smith, and May. The aphorism in fact applies much more aptly to the Labour Party. In the whole of the party’s history it has had 19 leaders. Only four ballots have been triggered in order to try to oust the man at the top. They all failed. The Conservatives are much more willing, for the good of the party, to ditch a leader who is seen as an electoral liability (or in Chamberlain’s case an inadequate war leader). Other attempts to force out a Labour leader got nowhere. When Labour swept to power in 1945 Herbert Morrison absurdly tried to engineer an election for the party leadership, hoping that he would win it and thus become Prime Minister. Happily, Ernest Bevin told Attlee to ignore this manoeuvre and go forthwith to the Palace; when told that Morrison was his own worst enemy, Bevin’s reponse was, ‘Not while I’m alive he ain’t’. For completeness it should be noted that Ramsay MacDonald was thrown out of the Labour Party when he formed the National Government in 1931. Only four formal and completely unsuccessful leadership challenges, and no involuntary resignations, says it all.    

The best and worst Prime Ministers

It was irresistible while writing about so many Prime Ministers to think how they might be ranked. Who should be listed at or near the top, and who at or near the bottom? Who formed the most impressive Cabinet, and who the least? Obviously such questions can only be answered against specified criteria. In any case would it be sensible to compare Edwardian Prime Ministers with their modern counterparts? But a few names can be considered for inclusion in the political pantheon. Churchill was, as lawyers might have put it when they were still allowed to use Latin tags, sui generis (unique). Otherwise, everyone today salutes the unequalled achievement of Attlee and his colleagues in founding the NHS – in the teeth of Conservative opposition led by the great man himself. Wilson gave Roy Jenkins the support which was essential to enact social reforms in the 1960s which made Britain a fairer and more tolerant place. For those who supported membership of the European Union Edward Heath must receive recognition for taking the United Kingdom into the EEC in the first place. Thatcher overcame male prejudice to become the first female Conservative leader and Prime Minister. She broke the post-war economic consensus and, hideously painful for so many as her government’s policies were, she deserves a prominent place in any 20th century hall of political fame. Tony Blair presided over (though had no personal interest in) the biggest package of constitutional rearrangements ever undertaken by a British government. Opinions differ about their merits, but they have since survived a decade of Conservative-led governments. Blair deserves unqualified praise for the energy which he put into achieving the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. 

Four premiers, again considered in order of their service, might not get anywhere near such a hall of fame. MacDonald led Labour to power for the first time in its history, but over a total of seven years in Number 10 achieved nothing of note. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy is usually damned. Many people are sure that he delayed war against Hitler for too long, whilst others have argued that his policy had the effect of making Britain better able to fight in September 1939. But either way Chamberlain wouldn’t get across the threshold of the pantheon. Suez finished Eden and his reputation. May volunteered herself to her party to deliver Brexit and failed: her premiership will rank very low indeed. 

Of course, such musings omit the present incumbent. He entered Number 10 a year ago. His goal of Brexit has been secured. Otherwise his Cabinet’s achievements reflect its individual talents. Even the generally-praised Rishi Sunak has done the easy part of his task. He has spent vast amounts of other people’s money to meet the economic emergency. Now he faces the infinitely harder test of how to replace it. Will he join the list of ex-future Prime Ministers? As with the eventual rating of Johnson himself we can only, to use Asquith’s phrase, wait and see.   

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About the author

Rodney Brazier is Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law in the University of Manchester. Choosing a Prime Minister is published by Oxford University Press.