From 1922 to today: the five greatest prime ministerial downfalls of the past 100 years
Boris Johnson has said that he will step down as Britain’s prime minister, but he is far from the first compelled to end their tenure in No 10 Downing Street ahead of time. Richard Toye, professor of modern history at the University of Exeter, considers five of the most spectacular downfalls of British prime ministers during the past 100 years…
Boris Johnson has announced that he will step down as prime minister, after a torrid 48 hours in which he refused to go despite the resignations of more than 50 of his colleagues. How does this debacle compare with five remarkable Downing Street defenestrations from the past century?
Contrasting the individuals below with the fall of Boris Johnson, one notices that their departures were all comparatively orderly, even though bitter feelings were similarly involved. Personality was always a part of what was at stake, yet great issues were also always involved.
David Lloyd George
Liberal Party prime minister from 1916–22
Lloyd George gained a reputation as “the man who won the war” and triumphed in the general election of 1918. But he commanded only a limited number of Liberal MPs; the rest had stayed loyal to Asquith. Thus, he relied on the cooperation of his Conservative coalition partners. As his own reputation declined, and as the bulk of the Tories ceased to regard him as an electoral asset, he would be more and more at their mercy.
Over time, Lloyd George undermined himself through the failure to fulfil promises such as ‘Homes for Heroes’ [a plan to ensure adequate housing for returning war veterans], through the highly dubious (but legal) sale of honours to raise party funds, and by his highhanded, quasi-presidential political style. Yet the coalition staggered on, and the Conservative leader Austen Chamberlain, remained loyal to him.
The final blow came in the autumn of 1922, when the prime minister seemed willing to risk war with Turkey. Former Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law signalled his willingness to re-enter the fray, and a meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club voted heavily to end the coalition, prompting Lloyd George to offer his resignation. One future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, attacked Lloyd George as “a dynamic force”, a phenomenon which he described as “a very terrible thing; it may crush you, but it is not necessarily right”.
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Bonar Law took over in Downing Street and won the 1922 election by a landslide. Lloyd George seems to have taken his fall quite lightly. He probably thought that he would be back, and indeed remained active in politics for another two decades.
Conservative Party prime minster 1937–40
Neville Chamberlain, who had served for several years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, took over from Stanley Baldwin in 1937. Though he has a reputation for weakness, in truth he was domineering and dictatorial, demanding unconditional loyalty from his MPs.
The 1938 Munich Agreement, which sacrificed part of Czechoslovakia but bought short-term peace, brought him immense popularity. Despite the deteriorating European scene, Chamberlain was dominant at home in the face of the weakness of the Labour Party, which he despised. This in time proved his Achilles heel – because the feeling was mutual.
When war broke out in 1939, it was clear that Chamberlain did not relish the task ahead of him. The German invasion of Norway led to a military fiasco for which, in fact, navy minister Winston Churchill bore much responsibility. But the Commons debate that followed boosted Churchill’s chances and showed Chamberlain at his arrogant worst. The septuagenarian David Lloyd George urged that “the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office”.
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The government won the vote that followed, but its majority collapsed. Chamberlain’s efforts to restore confidence by reconstructing his government foundered when Labour refused to join a coalition led by him. The party’s leaders were willing to serve under Churchill, though, and he took over on 10 May 1940 as the Nazis launched attacks on France and the Low Countries. Chamberlain remained leader of the Conservative Party and was a loyal member of the new government until a fatal illness forced his resignation a few months later.
Conservative Party prime minister from 1955–57
Anthony Eden had long been the golden boy of British politics. He served twice as Churchill’s Foreign Secretary and was his anointed successor when the veteran politician finally stood down in 1955. Eden suffered physically, after an operation to remove gallstones went wrong, and politically and emotionally, having been in Winston Churchill’s shadow too long. He was soon accused of failing to provide “the smack of firm government”. This increased the pressure when, in July 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal Company, which was widely seen as a blow to British prestige.
Eden did not want to be regarded as a warmonger, so after months of stalemate, he secretly agreed to a plan put to him by the French. The proposal was that “Israel should be invited to attack Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula” and that France and Britain, having given the Israeli forces enough time to seize all or most of Sinai, should then order ‘both sides’ to withdraw their forces from the Suez Canal, in order to permit “an Anglo-French force to intervene and occupy the Canal on the pretext of saving it from damage by fighting”.
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When the plot was put into effect it became clear that Eden had seriously misread the attitude of the Americans. The United States joined the condemnation in the UN, blocked Britain’s access to emergency oil supplies, and prevented the UK from gaining access to International Monetary Fund resources. Unable to withstand the pressure, Eden declared a ceasefire on 6 November.
After this humiliation, Eden’s colleagues were only prepared to allow him to continue as prime minister in name only. On 9 January 1957, he stood down on grounds of ill-health. The illness was genuine, but it also allowed Eden to depart with a modicum of dignity from a situation that had become untenable.
Labour Party prime minister from 1976–79
James Callaghan, nicknamed ‘Sunny Jim’, looked like a safe pair of hands when he took over after Harold Wilson’s surprise resignation in 1976. He was highly experienced, having been Chancellor, Home Secretary, and Foreign Secretary. He showed his mettle when, soon after taking office, he kept his Cabinet together during a financial crisis that led to an International Monetary Fund bailout. But his party was deeply divided: he was a moderate or Right-winger but faced continual pressure from the Left, not least from the radical socialist Tony Benn.
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The government soon lost its small majority due to defeats in by-elections. It is often speculated that had Callaghan called an election in the autumn of 1978, he would have won it. In the event, the government’s hopes of victory were cast away during the wave of industrial action known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’, when unions pushed back against the government’s policy of holding down wages in the fight against inflation.
Callaghan worsened his own problems when he gave a complacent press conference after his return from an international summit. The Sun newspaper ran the headline “Crisis? What Crisis?” Callaghan had not used those exact words, but the interpretation was not unfair.
Finally, the government was narrowly defeated in the Commons on a vote of confidence. Callaghan immediately called an election, which was won decisively by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. He was a victim less of his own personal limitations than of a shift in the tectonic plates of politics, as Britain’s ideological compass shifted firmly to the Right.
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Conservative Party prime minister from 1979–90
By the time of her third successive election victory, Margaret Thatcher had made a huge impact on Britain’s society – the very thing she claimed didn’t exist.
She had disposed of many enemies along the way, including those within her own party whom she labelled “Wets”. But the 1986 Westland affair had started a time-bomb ticking. This scandal, about the obscure issue of a helicopter firm, led to the resignation of the Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, after he clashed with Thatcher over the company’s fate. For the next four years he bided his time, charming Tory audiences on the ‘rubber chicken circuit’, as the parade of constituency party dinners is sometimes called.
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Meanwhile Thatcher became increasingly isolated and less willing to listen to advice. In 1989 she broke with her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, and was challenged for the leadership by Anthony Meyer, an unknown MP. She won easily, but a marker had been put down. The introduction of a hated new form of local taxation, the so-called Poll Tax, deepened her unpopularity with the voters.
Her growing anti-Europeanism alienated her deputy prime minister, the unassuming Geoffrey Howe. In November 1990 he resigned and delivered a devastating Commons speech, concluding: “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.”
Heseltine then announced a leadership challenge. When the ballot was taken, Thatcher came first, but not by a wide enough margin to prevent a second round of voting. After many colleagues advised her to abandon the fight, she announced her decision to resign. She had lost neither a national election nor a Commons vote; whether she could in fact have won the leadership contest was never put to the test. As she commented at the time, “It’s a funny old world.”
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Richard Toye is professor of modern history at the University of Exeter. He is a historian of Britain in in its global and imperial context in the period from the late 19th century to the present day. His most recent book is Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020)