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The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon

Spoiler alert. Ten pages from the end of his 337-page study, Anthony Seldon concludes that “the undoubted challenges” of being Prime Minister “have not made the job impossible”.

He also concedes that making lists of the best Prime Ministers, though “entertaining”, is also “largely meaningless”, because there are no “agreed criteria on what constitutes ‘success’ for a Prime Minister”.

But Seldon knows which PMs he puts in his top class, worthy of the accolade of being “Agenda Changers”, by which he means they “changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of Prime Minister operated”:

“Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher.”

No Winston Churchill, which is rather refreshing, for that endlessly fascinating figure can sometimes obscure everyone who came before him.

But oddly enough, in the piece for The Times which Seldon wrote about his book, the top eight become the top nine, for Churchill is included.

One must register here an immediate protest at the exclusion of Pitt the Elder. For although his titanic parliamentary speeches are lost to history – there was no Hansard in that confident century – the electrifying effect of this pioneering globalist’s performances is amply recorded, and it is a mere quibble to say that in 1759, the Year of Victories, he was not actually Prime Minister, but merely the driving force of the Government and of British arms.

In Seldon’s book, Churchill is relegated to the second division, described as “Major Contributors”, as if they had donated substantial sums to the school appeal, after which we get “Positive Stabilisers”, “Noble Failures”, “Ignoble Failures”, and “Left on the Starting Line”, this last category consisting of PMs who served for too short a time to make much of a difference.

All this has the merit of being highly thought-provoking. Seldon is a Gladstonian technocrat. He admires moral seriousness, and getting things done. Life is real and life is earnest, and so is politics.

Walpole, who took office 300 years ago today, is some ways lucky to make the cut. Seldon begins with an imaginary dialogue between Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, who is the 55th holder of the office.

Throughout these three centuries, control of the House of Commons has been a cardinal requirement for any Prime Minister, and loss of control, which Walpole suffered at the start of 1742, meant you were out.

Although Seldon reserves his greatest admiration for Prime Ministers who changed the way the office works, he does not seek to hide the fact that in some ways it has remained unchanged.

He does not, however, have much sympathy with any Prime Minister who might be suspected of frivolity. He has little time for Benjamin Disraeli, and a great deal for Robert Peel.

The enduring impact of the great split of 1846, when Disraeli destroyed Peel and almost destroyed the Conservative Party, is underplayed by Seldon:

“For Conservatives, memories of Peel’s splitting the party caused successive leaders regular anxiety.”

Regular nightmares would be more accurate. Robert Blake, in The Unknown Prime Minister, his life of Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, puts the matter in its true perspective, when explaining why in 1913 Bonar Law felt obliged, as the still quite new Conservative leader, to abandon his personal support for Imperial Preference, an issue as bitterly divisive as Brexit became a century later:

“Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the day when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for 20 years, successive Conservative leaders had felt it was their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view.”

Such party considerations are almost entirely ignored by Seldon, who instead focuses on what happens inside Number Ten. Bonar Law, who brought down Lloyd George but then served as Prime Minister for only 212 days before being forced by mortal illness to step down, is put among the Prime Ministers who had too little time to do anything significant while in office.

Lord Salisbury, who spent a total of almost 14 years as Prime Minister, is placed by Seldon in the third division. One looks in vain for any recognition of Salisbury’s ability often to defeat Gladstone, by ensuring that after the widening of the franchise in 1884, an organised appeal was made to the “Villa Toryism” found in the suburbs which were springing up round every prosperous town.

In Seldon’s view, Salisbury “was responsible for few fresh initiatives over his 14 years”, so doesn’t belong at the top table. Novelty is what counts, so Tory leaders who disguise innovation as keeping things the same receive no credit.

Lord Rosebery, who in 1894 succeeded Gladstone but remained in office for only a year and a bit, comes off worse. “We need not linger on Lord Rosebery,” Seldon tells us, later adding that this Prime Minster “lacked gravitas, failed to build on Gladstone’s legacy, to give a clear direction, and led the Liberals into a defeat”.

It is certainly true that despite being a man of wealth, intellect, charm and spell-binding eloquence, and winning the Derby twice while he was Prime Minister, Rosebery was a failure. But reading Seldon’s study reminds us that failure can be good for liberty, and good for Parliament.

The voters, who are almost entirely absent from this account, need someone to blame when things have gone wrong, and in many ways it is more satisfying to blame a brilliant Prime Minister than a second-rate one.

The Commons matters because it can end any Prime Minister’s career. Here is one of the great checks on tyranny, for MPs in whichever party or coalition of parties has a parliamentary majority are quick to realise when their leader has become such a liability with the wider public that they themselves will be in danger of losing their seats at the next election.

The Commons withdraws its confidence from a Prime Minister who has failed, and a new Prime Minister, who perhaps sees more clearly what the nation requires, is given the chance to show what he or she can do.

Churchill taking over from the previously impregnable Neville Chamberlain in 1940 is the most dramatic example of this brutal process. We have a wonderfully responsive system, which is one reason why it has absorbed three centuries of shocks: plenty of wars, riots, crashes, slumps and strikes, but no revolution.

The Commons is still there, and when it senses that the right moment has come it will – unless pre-empted by some some other means of getting rid of the Prime Minister such as an election defeat – unmake Johnson as it unmade Thatcher.

Seldon makes proposals for lightening the load borne by the Prime Minister, by delegating much of the routine business of government to a Deputy Prime Minister, and many external responsibilities to the Foreign Secretary, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer demoted to become only the fourth most senior member of the Cabinet.

Such reforms may be desirable, and might even lead to greater efficiency, but efficiency is not enough. And Seldon recognises that well-intentioned reforms often prove transitory.

John Major tried to show he was a different kind of leader by consulting the Cabinet more respectfully than his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was accustomed to do. As Seldon comments, “It didn’t last. It never does.”

Seldon has interviewed a number of insiders, including Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, who tells him:

“The role of full Cabinet has been over-emphasised. It’s just become too big to be the decision-making body.”

The same point was made, more amusingly, by C. Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

There are a number of astonishing errors in Seldon’s book: Lloyd George is said to have sat for 55 years for a “South Wales seat”, while a well-known remark by Horace Walpole about the fourth Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle (“A Secretary of State without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue, without secrecy or policy, and a Minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and Ministers, without being turned out by any”) is attributed to H.T. Dickinson.

But there are also some wonderful things. Here is the Duke of Portland, Prime Minister in 1783 and again in 1807-9, and classified by Seldon as an Ignoble Failure:

“the idea of courting popularity by any means I have always reprobated…the possession or enjoyment of it has always something in it very suspicious, and I know hardly any act or measure vulgarly or commonly called popular which has not originated in a bad cause, and been productive of pernicious effects.”

Many Remainers would agree most devoutly with Portland. Could it be (as I suggested the other day) that we still live in an 18th-century country?

One of the best things about this book is that it makes one think anew about our political tradition, and give thanks that certain features of it, including the office of Prime Minister, still possess, despite all attempts by glorified management consultants at modernisation, some traces of their rude original vigour.