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There are more or less two routes to becoming Prime Minister. You can either (i) win a General Election (ii) win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see here. Theresa May is a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i).

The table below shows the takeover PMs for the last 100 years, with the previous position, whether they won or lost the election, time in office, how they left office and their ranking as Prime Minister according to Professor Kevin Theakston’s 2004 expert survey.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1916-2016

Prime Minister[1] Previous Position Won or Lost Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20)[2]
Gordon Brown 2007 Chancellor Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major 1990 Chancellor Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Foreign Secretary Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Foreign Secretary Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Chancellor Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Foreign Secretary Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned 20
Winston Churchill

1940

First Lord of the Admiralty Lost 1945 5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Chancellor n/a 3 years Resigned 17
Stanley Baldwin 1923 then 1935 Lord President of the Council Lost   1923

Won 1935

 

-1 year

2 years

 

Defeated

Resigned

8
Andrew Bonar Law        ? n/a 1 year Resigned 16
David Lloyd George Chancellor Won 1918 6 years Resigned 3

 So what can we tell our new Prime Minister from this?

One notable point is that takeover has been a very common route to the top. Of the 19 Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to David Cameron 12 have been, in some form and at some point, takeover PMs (counting twice Stanley ‘double takeover’ Baldwin).

May’s exact route, however, is rather unusual. Much has been made of May’s experience as the longest serving Home Secretary since Attlee’s James Chute Ede (thanks to the IFG’s Gavin Freeguard for putting everyone right). Interestingly, none of the other takeover Prime Ministers ever came to Downing Street directly from the Home Office, though two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, had been Home Secretaries in the past.

In terms of exit, Prime Minister May appears to have exactly even chances of leaving office by election or resignation. Over the 12 takeovers 6 have resigned and 6 were defeated. The premiership of takeovers are relatively brief-their average time in office is a rather small 3.3 years.

The big question is how such Prime Ministers are judged to have performed. Using Kevin Theakston’s rankings and Peter Hennessy’s ‘taxonomy’ of performance most takeovers don’t do well, and are in the lower reaches of the ranking. Only two of them, Lloyd George and Churchill, are truly ‘top flight’ or ‘weather-making’ leaders, though Macmillan comes close.

1950 - Confirm your confidence in Churchill (Conservative poster)

More worrying for Prime Minister May, the bottom 5 of the rankings are all takeovers. The nether reaches of Theakston’s table are full of names such Anthony Eden or Neville Chamberlain, both ‘catastrophic failures’ in crisis partly of their own making, and ‘overwhelmed’ leaders like John Major, who was famously told he was in ‘office but not in power’ (Arthur Balfour, not included here, also replaced Robert Cecil, his uncle, in 1902-hence the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’).

As the Financial Times said a new prime minister — now comes the hard part. Brexit, a divided country and the breaking up of Britain are huge challenges for any leader. Being Prime Minister is about the personality of the holder and much has been made of May’s competence and clarity. However, May’s habits of mulling over details is rather Brown-esque while her tactic of blaming others when things go wrong (just about) worked in the Home Office but is unlikely to do so in Downing Street.

Moreover, May has a slender majority in the House of Commons of 12 MPs and is inheritor of a rebellious party that has rebelled most over Europe and fears UKIP. Other recent takeovers like Callaghan, Major and Brown who headed similarly divided parties and faced deep crises became what Roy Jenkin’s called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as kind of historical codas to an era. We shall soon see if May joins the ‘weather-makers’ or the greatness of her office finds her out.

[1] Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected

[2] Not included here is Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald. He took over as Prime Minister in 1931 in charge of a national coalition government but, rather confusingly and controversially, took over from himself as Labour Prime Minister in the previous administration. He was ranked 14 in the survey.

10 downing st

Being Prime Minister is, even at the best of times, rather tough. For the all of the £143,462 a year and free house (in a lovely central London location) it is a difficult and demanding job.

The next Prime Minister’s in-tray is looking particularly problematic. Whoever leads the UK will have to somehow head a divided party, run a divided country and confront the new forces pulling the UK apart, from the SNP’s referendum manoeuvres in Scotland to the borderless uncertainty of Northern Ireland. This is without mentioning the two years of negotiations with 27 rather upset EU member states.

Why, you may well ask, would anyone want to be Prime Minister now? Why are the runners and riders in the Tory party frantically backstabbing and front-stabbing in a Macbeth-style incarnadine orgy? Why is everyone not doing what we can now term a ‘Boris Johnson’ and running from their responsibilities?

Here’s three reasons why people want to be PM-but each comes with a downside.

  1. Because they think they’d be good at it (‘I Should Not fail’)

Many candidates want to be PM because they think they can do it and do it well. They believe only they have the abilities, outlook and temperament to be in control events. Churchill wrote that in the summer of 1940 he knew, as he stepped over the threshold of the famous black door, ‘a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail’.

Sometimes they also think that because they have done other jobs well they may be effective leaders-though the evidence for this is not convincing. Gordon Brown was a long serving Chancellor, Eden a (very) long serving Foreign Secretary and John Major did a bit of both. All went on to fail pretty spectacularly in Downing Street.

The problem is that being Prime Minister ruthlessly reveals whether you are truly good at or not. Even though you are still technically only ‘first among equals’ the office of PM is fundamentally different in its exposure from other great offices of state. A Chancellor can, to an extent, duck and hide from the media. A PM cannot. Whoever heads the Brexit government will find out, very quickly, whether they have the skills. And they will have nowhere to hide.

  1. Because they want to ‘Change Things’ and ‘Make a Difference’ (‘Walking with Destiny’)

Those who wish to be Prime Minister often speak of changing things and making a difference, though the desire normally precedes the detail. Thatcher and Blair arrived in power intending to modernise the country. Both of them took some time to find out what this all meant and there was a large element, even for Thatcher, of making-it-up-as-you-go-along. Only perhaps Edward Heath changed things at a stroke when he took the UK into the then EEC.

Some Prime Ministers never even had a plan and never made a difference. Despite ten years of plotting, there was no real Brownism. Similarly Wilsonism amounted to very little while Majorism was nothing more than paraphrased George Orwell quotes and a cone hotline.

Any leader that takes Britain out of the EU would indeed walk with destiny and change things to an extraordinary degree. At least for the post Brexit PM the mission is clear (ish) –to leave the EU (ish). Exactly how this is to be done is extraordinarily complex and very, very fuzzy. Leaving would be as time consuming and attention sapping as Northern Ireland or reversing national decline was for a succession of past leaders. The lurking danger is what other change leaving would bring. Will it trigger the break-up of Britain? Would any leader (especially a Conservative) want to be the Prime Minister that finally, after 300 years, dis-united the UK?

  1. Because of their ego.

Possibly the least noble but most important motive for being PM is ego. The only real immortality, as Machivelli argued, is ‘lasting fame after your death’. In Downing Street, the photos of your illustrious predecessors gaze at you each time you walk up the stairs. Being Prime Minister instantly makes you a true historical figure, inhabiting an office of weather-makers, part of a lineage with Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That’s an ego boost.

Few politicians can truly avoid the desire to be top. The hand of history, international prestige, the trappings and power are all almost irresistible (not to mention the gifts and foreign travel).  Churchill, for all his walking with destiny, was deeply ambitious and egotistical. Lloyd George, no slouch in the ego stakes, said of Winston he ‘would make a drum of out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’. So it is with others, as an innate belief in yourself is what gets you there. However, ego destroys as well as creates. It can easily give way to hubris, unwarranted certainty and inflexibility.

Whoever enters Number 10 brimming with confidence needs to look closely at those other faces on the stairwell. From Eden to Brown, leaders attracted by the office found that their supposed abilities and plans turned to dust. Even worse are the reputations of Prime Ministers like Neville Chamberlain (and now David Cameron) who were simply overwhelmed and whose names are synonymous with failure. For every ‘winner’ like Attlee or Thatcher on the wall there are two or three losers who were, as Clement Attlee said, simply ‘not up to it’. Coming bottom of this list is not good for the ego.

Being PM

It is, perhaps all about context. In some situations ego, duty, desire and ability fuse and work together well. Churchill, at least in the summer of 1940, had probably the worst welcome to office possible. The Low Countries were invaded by the German army the very morning he became PM, and the British Empire and its allies (note Empire, not Britain alone) were left facing grave peril. However, Churchill spoke of how

I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.

How will it be for the new Prime Minister? Power, as Robert Caro puts it, reveals. The challenges are awesome, if not terrifying, for whoever wins the Conservative leadership. Their place in history is secured, though whether as a dazzling success or terrible failure is for them to determine. The first few months of our new PM will tell us very quickly if they are walking with destiny or simply tripping over their own ego.

MacDonald_Poster

There’s always discussion about how many members of the Cabinet went to Oxbridge (half of them) or how many Prime Ministers went to Oxford (26) or Cambridge (14) or how many this century didn’t go to university at all (4 including Winston Churchill who went to military school). But what, I hear you ask, about Birkbeck?

Well, we have a Prime Minister too. Not just any Prime Minister either. We have as a former student Ramsey MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. He was later head of another Labour government from 1929-1931 and a national coalition government from 1931 to 1935. While here he studied science, botany, agriculture, mathematics, and physics.

But what about now? At the moment there’s a good number of senior and influential politicians from across the political spectrum who studied here. In the right corner, for the Conservatives, is Birkbeck alumni include Jesse Norman MP. He is now chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that is currently looking into the future of FIFA and doping in athletics. Jesse Norman lectured in philosophy here (and also wrote a book on thinker Edmund Burke that was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction). In the (middle?) corner we have ex-Liberal Democrat Minister Ed Davey who was in charge of Energy and Climate Change between 2012 and 2015.

In the left corner we have no less than four Birkbeck alumni on Labour’s front bench. This includes Gloria De Piero MP (Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration Cabinet Office) Lisa Nandy MP (Energy and Climate Change) Luciana Berger MP (Shadow Minister for Mental Health and also, incidentally, grandniece of a famous Labour politician) and John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor).

Thatcher

So Birkbeck is doing well. And it doesn’t end there. Not only do we have great alumni. We also have a big fan base. Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher praised our university. Thatcher herself went to Oxford, where, incidentally, she may or may not have helped invent Mr Whippy ice cream [the Guardian says not but Mr Whippy says she did]. While Prime Minister she took time out to say in 1986 how ‘I admire Birkbeck college and its splendid work’.

You can see more about other famous Birkbeck students here and the history of our building at 10 Gower Street here.

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David Cameron announced today, at the end of his first term as Prime Minister, that he would not serve a third term. He said in a BBC interview that ‘terms are like Shredded Wheat: two are wonderful but three too many’-see here for the full interview. Alex Massie from the Spectator summed up the confusion in this blog

No, I don’t know why David Cameron would amputate his authority before he runs for re-election either. But that’s what he has done today by ruling out running for a third term in office. What a bizarre thing to do, not least because no-one expected him to run again in 2020 even if, by some good fortune, he returns to Downing Street on May 8th.

Drilling down into this, there are three causes for bafflement:

  1. No one was asking: No one seemed to be asking Cameron and he appears to be under no pressure to announce his departure, as a number of commentators have said. Deciding when and how you go is one of the few powers that a Prime Minister can cling on to, if they can possibly hang on to it. The last leader to really do it was Harold Wilson with his shock announcement in 1976.
  2. It’s unlikely he’ll get a second term, never mind a third: He appears to be displaying a rather ‘sunny optimism’ over whether he will still be in Downing Street on May the 8th, never mind 2020. Even were he to win (or not lose) in some form, there are a series of scenarios whereby Cameron may not survive. As some have pointed Cameron didn’t win in 2010 so speculating on his future victories seemed overly ambitious, to say the least.
  3. Giving a precise date creates more trouble than it’s worth. As Michael Crick put it: ‘Tony Blair (in 2004) & Sir Alex Ferguson (in 2001) found putting a time limit on your term of office severely undermines your authority’. Our paper here examined how Blair’s promise to leave in 2004 was a sign of weakness. His hope of using his ‘promise’ as a breathing space to push his personal agendas fell flat. His enemies scented weakness and his challenger became even more powerful. In fact, giving a firm date didn’t put his enemies off but made them try and move the date nearer. Announcing you are going breaks a spell, empowers your enemies and makes you a lame duck. Blair only really made progress on issues like international aid that Brown wanted to happen anyway.

So why did he do it?

Here’s three possibilities:

  1. Cameron didn’t mean to say it: he was, as Prime Ministers are wont to do, speculating on his status and position. Cameron isn’t always careful with his speculations-as his supposed indiscretions about the Queen ‘purring’ down the phone to him after the Scottish Independence referendum showed (though I’m not convinced that even this was a mistake-see this blog).
  2. He is making political space: perhaps he was trying, like Tony Blair, to carve a space to do things he wants to do before he goes. Blair did this very much under great pressure from a challenger. Is Cameron under some pressure or threat we don’t know about? Interestingly, he did also mention his commitment to future education reforms and clearly asserted he was only ‘half done’-was he asking or playing for time?
  3. He is signalling his intent: it may be Cameron is trying to display a confidence to his supporters and challengers. There has been rumours this weekend about Cameron’s post-election safety. His comment is ‘signalling’ to those who will hear that he thinks he can win and is looking to his future. It’s a kind of messy and watered-down equivalent of Thatcher’s famous pledge in 1987 to ‘ go on and on’.

Cameron’s new ‘shredded wheat’ analogy has definitely added something to the folk lexicon of leaders. You could respond by pointing out, of course, that it depends how hungry you are and the size of the bowl. In the meantime, he should perhaps meditate on Lyndon Johnson’s advice for politicians: ‘learn how to count’.

You can read our paper using our Leadership Capital Index to look at Tony Blair’s second term: Worthy, Ben and Bennister, Mark, Tony Blair: Leadership Capital Squandered? (March 23, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2584146

Ben Worthy is lecturer in politics and is co-creator of the measuring leadership blog.