Why Prime Ministers get the push
Boris Johnson’s announcement that he is set to resign as prime minister threw the British government into turmoil in July – and saw him join a small group of PMs brought down by scandal. Richard Toye explores what we can learn from the demise of previous premiers
Boris Johnson’s fall as prime minister early in July was spectacular. It was forced, not by any formal vote, but instead by the resignation of dozens of ministers and aides following a series of damaging political scandals.
Indeed, the number of resignations was so great that, had Johnson not quickly reversed his refusal to step down, the business of government might have ground to a halt. In keeping with Johnson’s taboo-breaking career, the cascade of ministerial departures was unprecedented – but history shows us that the enforced termination of a premier’s occupancy of Downing Street is a much more commonplace occurrence.
Of the 20 men and women who have held the keys to Number 10 since the First World War and the dawn of the era of mass enfranchisement, only six have had their prime ministerial careers cut short as the direct result of losing a general election. There are four main reasons that the others found themselves in that position: personal choice, scandal, national crises, and internal party politics.
A prime minister going out at the moment of their own choosing is relatively rare. Stanley Baldwin succeeded in retiring in 1937 on a wave of affection, having steered the country through the crisis sparked by the abdication of Edward VIII. Harold Wilson stunned the political world in 1976 when he stood down, unforced, at the age of 60. And Winston Churchill – on whom Johnson models himself – held on as long as he could during his second term despite his age and increasing infirmity, much to the frustration of his cabinet colleagues. Despite both Churchill and Johnson having faced national crises caused by the Second World War and the coronavirus pandemic, respectively, Johnson’s response was undermined in the eyes of some by the revelation that he had broken his own lockdown rules. Churchill withstood serious moments of political danger before his defeat at the 1945 election, but these were caused by military reversals, not because his personal integrity had been called into question.
The band that Johnson joins in being increasingly undermined by scandal is also quite small. Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George, for instance, had – to put it mildly – a colourful private life. In addition to other liaisons, he had a long-lasting affair with his secretary, Frances Stevenson. But his wife stuck by him, and according to the codes of the time this made the “Welsh Wizard” safe from press exposure. His willingness to sell honours to raise party funds became public knowledge in 1922, the last year of his premiership. This was not illegal, however, and although it made him look disreputable it was not the direct cause of his fall. Only when he appeared to risk war with Turkey over control of the Anatolian city of Çanakkale did Conservative MPs rebel against their leader, Austen Chamberlain, thus bringing an end to the coalition that Lloyd George headed.
Forty years later, the 1963 Profumo affair was damaging to Harold Macmillan, not because he knew about this sordid story of sex in high places, but rather because he was naively ignorant of it. Macmillan’s resignation soon after was caused by a health scare, albeit at a time when he was already politically weakened.
A drama out of a crisis
National crises have also caused PMs to get the push. Neville Chamberlain was a popular prime minister from the point he took office in 1937, and remained so after the outbreak of the Second World War. He became vulnerable after the 1940 Nazi invasion of Norway, and the botched British reaction, called his leadership into question.
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The parliamentary debate-cum-inquest of that May was the stuff of legend. Chamberlain misplayed his hand by appealing to his “friends in the House” – which looked like partisanship in place of patriotism. The Conservative backbencher Leo Amery turned the knife by quoting Oliver Cromwell’s 1653 address to parliament: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” Although the government was not defeated in the vote that followed, its majority fell drastically. This was a signal that Chamberlain needed to reconstruct his government to make it broader-based and more effective – a task that he found impossible, partly because Labour refused to join a coalition with him at the head. The party’s leaders were, however, prepared to serve under Churchill. On 10 May, when the wheels were in motion, Chamberlain briefly tried to cling on, pointing to Germany’s invasion that morning of France and the Low Countries. He was quickly dissuaded: his attempt to defy political gravity did not reach what we might term Johnsonian levels.
Anthony Eden, Conservative PM from 1955, resigned quickly after the Suez crisis of the following year. He was genuinely suffering from ill health, but had this not been the case it is hard to see how he could have long carried on in the wake of the catastrophic defeat of his foreign policy.
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Margaret Thatcher, by contrast, is an example of a prime minister brought down neither by scandal nor international crisis, but by internal politics. During 1990, she faced growing domestic difficulties and problems within the Conservative party to which she herself had contributed. She was not toppled as the result of what Johnson referred to in his resignation speech as “the herd instinct”. Rather, MPs had had a long time to reflect on the prime minister’s growing unpopularity and seemingly stubborn pursuit of widely disliked policies such as the Poll Tax. Ideological divisions over Europe certainly played a part, but Conservatives were up against the reality of looming electoral defeat – unless they could get rid of her. When her deputy, Geoffrey Howe, resigned in November 1990, giving a devastating Commons explanation of the reasons, the ambitious Michael Heseltine seized the chance to challenge her in a leadership contest. Thatcher won the first round, but not by enough votes to prevent a second. Following the advice of many colleagues, she announced her resignation rather than risk a formal defeat. It was her chancellor, John Major, who finally seized the crown, going on to win a surprise general election victory in 1992.
This suggested that the calculus of the Tory MPs who moved to overthrow Thatcher had been correct – at least in the short term. Yet the sense of betrayal among Thatcher’s supporters generated a poisonous atmosphere within the party. This helps explain the fact that, in the years since her fall, Tory MPs have so frequently challenged and even overthrown their leaders.
Finally, Clement Attlee deserves a mention, as a prime minister who saw off an attempted putsch. In 1947, a year of economic crisis, he was visited by Sir Stafford Cripps, his president of the Board of Trade. Cripps told him that he, Attlee, should become chancellor, and that Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, should become prime minister in his place. In Cripps’s presence, Attlee rang up Bevin, who denied wanting to leave his existing job. Attlee then offered Cripps a new role – that of minister of economic affairs. Cripps took it, and Attlee stayed at Number 10 until defeated in a general election four years later.
There may be a lesson for our next prime minister here: if you want to survive, low-key power-play may be a better technique than histrionic last-stand resistance. But it must be admitted that today’s politics, with the constant pressures of 24-hour news and social media, are rougher than those of the 1940s. Leadership challenges are no longer a weapon of last resort, but rather the normal currency of modern Westminster. It may be that some parliamentarians are pondering the possibility of a new one even before the next prime minister has crossed the threshold of Downing Street.
Richard Toye is professor of history at the University of Exeter. His books include Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020)
This article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine