What do all Prime Ministers have in common? What is the profile of the Prime Minister?
While writing brief lives of the 52 men, and two women, who have held that office since 1721, I attempted (with frequent additions, subtractions and revisions) to draw up a list of the qualities required to play the role with at least a modicum of success:
3. Hunger for power. In an ideal world, the prime ministership would be undertaken out of a reluctant sense of public duty, but in practice, a strong measure of ambition is needed to persuade someone to put up with the frustrations and degradations of politics.
4. Eloquence, including the ability to think on your feet in the Commons. Theresa May does not display this to any high degree, but nor does her opponent, Jeremy Corbyn.
5. The ability to distribute patronage in such a way as to gratify to a sufficient degree the appetites of your followers.
6. A different style to your predecessor, of whom people have grown sick. Very soon they will be sick of you.
7. An acute feel for public opinion, and in the earlier part of this period, an equally acute sense of how to manage the monarch. The longer you are in Downing Street, the harder it becomes to see things as others see them, or even to admit the need for this.
8. The capacity to rise to a crisis, and give the nation its idea of itself.
9. Respectability, or at least the absence of disreputable characteristics. Very few of our Prime Ministers have been duds or frauds, because the Commons can spot one of those as soon as he or she begins to speak. Someone like Donald Trump could not become Prime Minister, for it would be impossible to persuade a majority of MPs that he or she was an unembarrassing person.
10. The energy and stamina to do very heavy work. Overwork has shortened the lives of many Prime Ministers.
11. A capacity for collective leadership, which means running a team of ministers with various views, and arriving at decisions around which your colleagues are willing to unite. Lord Melbourne, PM in 1834 and from 1835-41, is supposed to have told the Cabinet: “Now, is it to lower the price of corn, or isn’t it? It is not much matter which we say, but mind, we must all say the same.”
12. The willingness and skill to perform that most humiliating manoeuvre, the U-turn. A free people cannot be ordered about. You are there to persuade ministers, MPs, and the wider nation to follow your lead, which cannot be in a direction they do not want to talk. You are not a tyrant, and must sometimes have the common prudence to change course. So although you need to know when to stick to your guns, you must also convey a tactful awareness of your own vulnerability.
A few weeks ago, I tried this list on a sympathetic audience at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, and Xan Smiley of The Economist afterwards pointed out that successful Prime Ministers, and American Presidents, enjoy, and are seen to enjoy, the role. He remarked that John Major, and Jimmy Carter, both of whom he wrote about, looked miserable.
But I would be the first to admit that a mere list, however often one refines it, and however thought-provoking the exercise of refining it may be, does not get to the heart of the matter. For that, it is more useful to look at what the most penetrating observers of the past have said. Here is Lord Chesterfield on Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister from 1721-42 (whose portrait appears at the top of this piece):
“He was both the ablest Parliament man, and the ablest manager of a Parliament, that I believe ever lived. An artful rather than an eloquent speaker, he saw as by intuition, the disposition of the House, and pressed or receded accordingly. So clear in stating the most intricate matters, especially in the finances, that while he was speaking the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not.”
And here is Walpole himself, describing to his successor, Henry Pelham (Prime Minister 1743-54), the methods needed to steer the monarch, George II:
“Address and management are the weapons you must fight and defend with: plain truths will not be relished at first in opposition to prejudices, conceived and infused in favour of his own partialities; and you must dress up all you offer, with the appearance of no other view or tendency, but to promote his service in his own way, to the utmost of your power. And the more you can make anything appear to be his own, and agreeable to his declarations and orders, given to you before he went, the better you will be heard…”
We may smile at how tactfully the King had to be managed, but is it really much different to how an audience of voters, or of party activists, has to be managed today?
Bagehot remarks, in his great essay The Character of Sir Robert Peel (Prime Minister from 1834-35 and 1841-46), on the strange combination of qualities required to hold high office in a system such as ours:
“A constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities…the most influential of constitutional statesmen is the one who most felicitously expresses the creed of the moment, who administers it, who embodies it in laws and institutions, who gives it the highest life it is capable of, who induces the average man to think, ‘I could not have done it any better if I had had time myself’.”
That is the test the average person will apply to Brexit. And the public also reserves the right to be scornful, whenever it chooses, of all politicians.
The Prime Minister serves as a scapegoat, so that when things go wrong, we have someone to blame. As our caricaturists have shown since the 18th century, there is something utterly ridiculous, and contemptible, about our masters’ attempts to claw their way to the top and tell us what to do. By laughing at them, we show we are not impressed by them, and in the end we enforce equality (for which all democracies have a deep craving) by overthrowing them, often with brutal abruptness.
And yet despite certain common characteristics, our 54 Prime Ministers remain highly individual. None is easily confused with another. Each has a set of strengths and absurdities which is his (or in two cases hers) alone.
As Herbert Henry Asquith (Prime Minister 1908-16) wrote in his memoirs, “The office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it.” No two holders have approached it in the same way, and often a new Prime Minister makes a conscious effort to avoid whatever were thought to be the intolerable characteristics of the last.
From this striving for a temporary and often illusory power, much amusement can be derived by the malicious onlooker. And yet the whole subject of our Prime Ministers is far from being only a joke. There is a moral element in politics, and one of the strengths of Clement Attlee (Prime Minister 1945-51) was that he knew this, and was seen to act on it. As he himself put it:
“There is one thing about politics that I think cannot be disputed: if a man stays in them long enough, they nearly always reveal him for what he is, and he tends to get not only what he deserves, but to find in his fate the reflection of his own strengths and weaknesses.”
Almost every Prime Minister has possessed, at the start, the moral (and not just constitutional) right to the office. Very often the new PM has shown courage of a high order. Winston Churchill is an obvious example, but I think it applies to a majority of the 54, at least at the beginning, before the compromises and mishaps of high office take their toll. As Churchill put it in his essay on Lord Rosebery (PM from 1894-95), while discussing why that brilliant man failed so badly on reaching the top:
“He sought indeed the palm, but the dust had never come his way; and when in high station the compromises, the accommodations, the inevitable acquiescence in inferior solutions, were forced upon him, he was not toughened against these petty vexations, or trained to see them in their true light… He would not stoop; he did not conquer.”
Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May, illustrated by Martin Rowson, is published by Square Peg (£10.99).