Prime Minister Liz Truss and the short, unhappy fate of the ‘takeover leader’

Following her appointment as Prime Minister yesterday, Liz Truss has become the third Prime Minister in a row to take office directly as a result of a party leadership election. Ben Worthy explains that taking office in the middle of a parliament has historically not gone well for the incoming Prime Minister, with none of the last three ‘takeover Prime Ministers’ able to complete a full parliamentary term in office.

There are two routes to becoming Prime Minister in the UK. You can either win a general election or triumph in a party leadership election to become head of the largest parliamentary party when a predecessor leaves. As section 2.18 of the Cabinet Manual puts it:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor.

Prime Minister Liz Truss is a ‘takeover’ leader, securing the post via the second route rather than the first. Remarkably, she will be the fifteenth takeover since 1916 and the second woman appointed mid-term since 2016.

There are some downsides to being a takeover. As the table below shows, takeovers’ time in office tends to be relatively brief. UK prime ministers in the last 100 years have lasted an average of just over five years, equivalent to the maximum length of one parliamentary term. Takeover tenure was considerably shorter at just over 3.6 years, compared with an average of 6.6 years for those who came to office following a general election. The longest takeover premiership was that of John Major, which lasted seven years, and the shortest was Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months (due to ill health).

The most recent takeovers are bywords for difficult, if not failed, premierships. Major (1990–1997), Gordon Brown (2007–2010) and the successive takeovers of Theresa May (2016–2019) and Boris Johnson (2019–2022) stand out as dysfunctional and struggling leaders. All led deeply divided parties and their names are linked to deep crises, whether economic (the Winter of Discontent or Black Wednesday), political (Maastricht or Brexit) or global (COVID-19).

Takeover Prime Ministers, 20162022[1]

Prime MinisterTime in power[1]Took over fromPrevious positionWon or lost next GE (and size of victory/loss)
Liz Trussn/aBoris Johnson in 2022Foreign Secretaryn/a
Boris Johnson3 yearsTheresa May in 2019NoneWon in 2019 (large win)
Theresa May3 yearsDavid Cameron in 2016Home SecretaryWon in 2017 (but lost majority)
Gordon Brown3 yearsTony Blair in 1997ChancellorLost in 2010 (narrow loss)
John Major7 yearsMargaret Thatcher in 1990ChancellorWon in 1992 (decreased majority)
James Callaghan3 yearsHarold Wilson in 1976Foreign SecretaryLost in 1979 (medium loss)
Alec Douglas-Home1 yearHarold Macmillan in 1963Foreign SecretaryLost in 1964 (narrow loss)
Harold Macmillan6 yearsAnthony Eden in 1957ChancellorWon n 1959 (increased majority)
Anthony Eden2 yearsWinston Churchill in 1955Foreign SecretaryWon in 1955 (increased majority)
Winston Churchill5 yearsNeville Chamberlain in 1940First Lord of the AdmiraltyLost in 1945 (landslide)
Neville Chamberlain3 yearsStanley Baldwin in 1937ChancellorNever fought an election
Stanley Baldwin2 years  Ramsey MacDonald in 1935Lord President of the CouncilWon in 1935 (lesser majority for coalition)
Stanley Baldwin 8 months  Andrew Bonar Law in 1923ChancellorLost in 1923 (hung parliament)
Andrew Bonar Law7 monthsLloyd George in 1922NoneNever fought an election
David Lloyd George6 yearsHerbert Asquith in 1916Secretary of State For WarWon in 1918[2]
[1] This table excludes the slight tricky case of Ramsay MacDonald, who took over from himself in 1931.
[2] This election was for the unique war time coalition that had not faced election before.

So why are takeover premierships so often brief and bumpy? Put simply, takeovers inherit problems, unhappy parties, and short mandates from their predecessors, and face a looming dilemma over when to call an election.

Inheriting crises

Prime Ministers normally exit for a reason, and takeovers inherit the problems and crises that their predecessors leave for them. These can be economic, like the recession for Major. David Cameron gifted May Brexit, which May then passed onto Johnson (and carries over to Truss).

Callaghan displayed considerable skills, whereas Major is widely viewed as a poor and inadequate leader who was out of his depth. Brown too appeared to lack skills or luck; though his reaction to the 2007 financial crisis was widely praised, it brought little political benefit. Johnson is rated as having done a worse job than any other leader since World War Two. When confronted with COVID-19, he simply froze, and a later joint select committee report concluded that the government’s lack of response mixed ‘fatalism’, groupthink, and an ignorance of practice elsewhere.

Prime Minister Truss faces huge challenges and expectations. As has been clear in the leadership debates, the public expect the Prime Minister to do something about the many crises that are facing the UK, from the cost of living and inflation, to the buckling of public services and threat of climate change. On top of this there is COVID-19, which has not gone away, and Brexit, which is continuing to cause ruptures everywhere from Dover to Belfast. Full Fact has produced an excellent analysis which looks at whether Truss’s pledges in the leadership campaign will solve the problems the new Prime Minister faces

Inheriting divided parties

Takeovers also often inherit unhappy parties. British politics is not always one of formal government and opposition, but what Antony King called an ‘over the shoulder politics’ with all leaders looking backwards at the potential threat from their own party benches. The last five takeovers all faced serious ‘over the shoulder’ difficulties, and battled to lead parties that were split and prone to rebellion. This meant U-turns and constant compromise, especially for those like May or Major with small or non-existent majorities. Even Johnson, with his supposedly ‘safe’ 80 seat majority, found a succession of major and minor policies, from planning to lockdowns, blocked and limited by his own MPs.  

As a sign of how bad party–leader relations often get, of the four most recent takeover PMs prior to Truss, three had to face some form of formal leadership challenge. John Major had to call his infamous ‘put up or shut up’ leadership election in 1995, while May and Johnson both faced party confidence votes (in 2018 and 2022 respectively), which they both won but not by enough to save them for very long. Gordon Brown, the only one not to face a formal challenge, fought off three informal backroom coups in as many years.

Prime Minister Truss, as our third female Prime Minister, is likely to be held to higher expectations and different standards then her male counterparts, as seen with Thatcher and May. She will also face a set of challenges created by the long leadership campaign, which resemble the polarising effect of presidential primaries in the US. When Truss entered Downing Street she did so knowing she is the favourite of the party’s grassroots but does not have the full support of her MPs. She may be the first Prime Minister to face speculation around a confidence vote before she entered Downing Street.

She also enters having made a series of stark promises to Conservative members about what she will do (‘cut taxes’, continue with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill) and what she will not do (‘give direct help over soaring energy costs’) and YouGov found the public have little confidence in her (or Rishi Sunak’s) ability to tackle the ‘big’ issues. Truss must decide, in her ‘big choice’, whether to perform a very un-Thatcherite U-turn, and disappoint her selectorate, or push policies so unpopular with the general public they have been described by a colleague as an ‘electoral suicide note’. Will her popularity ‘vaporise’ under the pressure of events?

To call an election?

The brutal fact for takeovers is that those Prime Ministers generally regarded as having ‘done something’ had six years or more in power: longevity means achievement, which means winning an election. One of the reasons leaders leave office or are pushed out of it is because a rival is considered to offer a better chance of electoral success, as was seen as Johnson’s popularity plumbed new depths.

Takeover leaders are often minded to secure their own election victory. John Major famously admitted to ‘a sneaking feeling that I was living in sin with the electorate’ before winning his own mandate. The media and political opponents often use the lack of electoral legitimacy against a leader, and speculation and pressure quickly builds as a consequence.

Since 1916 seven takeovers have won an election and five have lost the subsequent election (two never fought them). The dilemma is when to do it. Some takeovers decide to go to the country early: Anthony Eden called an election a mere nine days after becoming Prime Minister in 1955. Harold Macmillan waited two years until 1959. May, who ruled out a snap election, waited just one year while Johnson, who very much ruled one in, left it just six months. By contrast, Alec Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major and Brown sought to hang on to the end of their term limit and to, as Winston Churchill put it, ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. Both Callaghan in 1978 and Brown in 2007 backed down from calling an early election, with Brown losing his reputation for competence and decisiveness in doing so.

Truss will very soon face this same dilemma. Parliament must dissolve for a General Election by 17 December 2024 at the very latest, but the new Prime Minister can call one any time before, thanks to Johnson abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2010. This power is not to be sniffed at, and can be worth five points in an election. Like Brown and May before her, Truss is already facing pressure for an early poll from Conservative MPs and right-wing tabloids, to either capitalise on a ‘bounce’ or to take on Labour before its poll lead grows too large.

But for our new takeover Prime Minister to win an election is a tall order. Boris Johnson won, of course, in 2019 and John Major did the same in 1992. Before that the last takeover to win an election was Macmillan, way back in 1959, when he famously told a heckler ‘you’ve never had it so good’ (a phrase Liz Truss has repeated). However, Labour hold an 11-point lead over the Conservative Party, while Starmer sits ahead of Truss on perceived competence. The fierce leadership debates have handed Labour large amounts of pledges and quotes to use against the Conservatives in an election campaign. 

Any takeover inherits the same office, resources, and structural advantages of being Prime Minister, placing them at the centre of executive power and the media’s attention. Takeovers face greater obstacles and fewer advantages than elected Prime Ministers: their time in office is often nasty, brutish, and short. The danger for any takeover is that they become, like Callaghan, Major and Brown, what Roy Jenkins called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as ‘historical codas to an era’.

A more detailed analysis of this subject by the same author is available to read: Ending in Failure? The Performance of ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916–2016.

About the author

Ben Worthy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College.

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