The Plague of Being British Prime Minister
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Since the end of World War II, no fewer than seven of the country’s 14 leaders have resigned.
By Robert Meakin
He never saw it coming, and most political commentators had expected him to win. But within hours of the June 23 referendum last year, David Cameron would tell the British public, “I do not think it would be right for me to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”
Cameron announced his resignation as prime minister, having failed to convince his country that the U.K. should remain part of the European Union. Six years after coming to power, the London-born, Oxford-educated politician — not yet 50 — saw his political career crumble as the majority of voters turned against him. In cashing out his chips, Cameron joined a long list of U.K. prime ministers forced out of office earlier than anticipated. Indeed, since the end of World War II, no fewer than seven of the country’s 14 leaders have resigned before their term was up. Winning general elections is one thing, surviving the hazards of Downing Street is quite another.
[Harold] Wilson said to me his problem was he’d been around for so long, he could see the same problems coming around again. He couldn’t think of any new solutions.
Michael Cockerell, broadcaster
While Britain’s controversial relationship with the EU sealed Cameron’s fate, declining health has regularly been blamed for the sudden departure of PMs in the past. A decade after steering Britain through World War II, 80-year-old Winston Churchill could take no more. Having secretly suffered a stroke in 1953, he finally accepted the inevitable and stepped down in 1955. Ill health was also the official reason for the resignation of Churchill’s replacement, Anthony Eden, and Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan. Haunted by medical problems, not least those caused by a botched gall bladder operation in 1953, Eden quit in January 1957 on the advice of doctors who publicly announced his health would “no longer enable him to sustain the heavy burdens inseparable from the office of prime minister.” Macmillan, meanwhile, bowed out in 1963 after prostate surgery.
Medical issues aside, events had already turned against both men. Eden was a spent force after Britain’s involvement in the Suez Crisis, when he made a disastrous attempt to topple Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Macmillan’s administration was later rocked by the Profumo affair, when Secretary of State for War John Profumo lied about a sexual relationship with showgirl Christine Keeler, who was also sleeping with Russian spy Yevgeny Ivanov. Macmillan’s much-criticized handling of the scandal left him politically wounded months before he went under the surgeon’s knife.
The most mysterious resignation in recent decades was that of Harold Wilson, who stunned the nation in March 1976 by announcing his departure. First elected in 1964, and re-elected in ’74, Wilson maintained it had long been his plan to quit. This remains a subject of debate, with some claiming Wilson, who was struck down by Alzheimer’s disease in later life, was already aware of his declining mental state, while other historians point to Wilson’s belief that members of Britain’s intelligence services were plotting against him.
Then again, he may just have tired of the political game. “Wilson said to me his problem was he’d been around for so long, he could see the same problems coming around again. He couldn’t think of any new solutions,” says respected political broadcaster Michael Cockerell. But Wilson’s extraordinary photographic memory “was fading, and he knew it was going first,” Cockerell adds.
Rebellion, rather than fading health, ended the careers of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, despite both winning three consecutive general elections for their parties. Having alienated colleagues with her abrasive style and facing poor poll ratings, the “Iron Lady” was brought down in 1990, after a leadership challenge by her former defense secretary Michael Heseltine. While Heseltine’s own bid for the top job was thwarted by rival John Major, Thatcher struggled to adapt to life away from Downing Street. Following Thatcher’s death, in 2013, her former private secretary Charles Powell reflected in The Spectator, “It was the exercise of power she was built for, and without that, she felt life lacked purpose.”
A decade after Blair’s huge election victory in 1997, his enemies within his own Labour Party were determined to force him through the exit door. With Blair’s authority and reputation damaged by the Iraq invasion, his long-standing agreement to eventually make way for senior party colleague Gordon Brown came to a head when Blair changed his mind about relinquishing power in 2004. Highlighting a clash between the pair in Brown’s Britain, author Robert Peston claimed an incensed Brown told Blair, “There is nothing you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe.” An attempted coup by Brown’s supporters in 2006 reinforced the belief that Blair was on borrowed time, and the prime minister finally announced he would be leaving office within 12 months, making way for Brown to ascend in June 2007.
With Prime Minister Theresa May still leading polls heading into the June 8 general election (though only just), many predict that May could stick around for a long time. A brief glance at the fates of British PMs over the past 70 years, however, suggests that such predictions are premature. Whether due to political scandal or disaster, failing health or bloodthirsty colleagues, ruling the U.K. often ends suddenly, and badly. Ms. May, take note!
This article has been updated since its original publication on April 16, 2017.
- Robert Meakin, OZY AuthorContact Robert Meakin