So, Bye, Bye, Mr British Lie… For the second time in three years a prime minister has gone amid political in-fighting, recriminations, and eye-popping incompetence. At least with Theresa May we could be reasonably sure that she could be relied upon to tell the truth most of the time – and it’s depressing enough that such a meagre difference could make anyone feel nostalgic for the days of Boris Johnson’s predecessor, but that’s the political heritage we’re expected to tolerate these days. Don’t expect your rulers to achieve anything these days – just to be able to manage: manage their cabinet, manage events, and manage us the voters. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic about the ability of statesmen and -women to make a positive difference in this age of 24-hour media and echo-chamber social media – but maybe the great thing about political pessimism is that we can only be pleasantly surprised…
OK, that’s the hard bit over with. The latest ignominious departure from No 10 means that we have to reassess not just his career but those of many of his predecessors. When Mrs May tearfully exited No 10 three years ago, I suggested on Slugger that she was a strong candidate for the Ultimate British Ignobel Prize (UBIP) for Britain’s worst-ever prime minister. Now her successor, given his record, is inevitably bidding for the title himself. I realise, too, that I need to expand the criteria for the Prize – and extend the field to our heads of government since the 1800 Acts of Union. Well, I won’t have much of an article otherwise…
Anyway, do please sit back and check out your Cut-Out-‘n’-Keep guide to Britain’s worst-ever prime ministers (Revisited) (for the others on the list, please refer to my original article…)…
Frederick Robinson, Lord Goderich (Tory, 1827-8)
This washout of a politician was handed the job of prime minister after the death of his Party’s Great Hope in George Canning – who himself took over the job in the wake of the retirement through ill-health of the calm, steadying chairman of a character in the form of R B Jenkinson (Lord Liverpool). This was at a time when harvests were failing, and demands for political reform in both Britain and Ireland were growing. To be prime minister during such a difficult moment took considerable charisma and talent, but Goderich had neither the charisma of Canning nor the talent or skills of Liverpool, and had the unenviable task of explaining his deficiencies to the only politician in the country who was more useless than him – King George IV. To be fair to Goderich, he had his reasons for his shortcomings: he might well have suffered from anxiety or depression, while his wife certainly did. The King didn’t exactly help, referring to Goderich as a “damned snivelling, blubbering blockhead”. Two years later, when the Tories finally fell from power after a staggering 24 years, Goderich defected from the Tories to the Whigs.
Lord John Russell (Whig, 1846-52, 1865-6)
The first British politician to advertise himself proudly as a Liberal, Russell was not exactly the creed’s best advert. A fastidious and pompous aristocrat, he was not a natural team player, and frequently feuded with his more colourful colleague, the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, over policy as well as personality. Russell wasn’t exactly a natural manager of his cabinet, either: Palmerston more or less ran the Foreign Office with scarcely any consultation with his boss, and nearly got Britain involved in a war with almost every other European country over his clumsy bullying of the Greek government in the Don Pacifico affair of 1850.
The country’s last Whig prime minister arguably also did fatal damage to that political brand: a movement that began in the 1670s and motivated by the belief that our history was on an uninterrupted upward arc towards progress, thanks to Britain’s supposedly perfect constitution, saw its reputation damaged lethally in a decade that saw the worst harvests for two centuries. Food inflation n Britain would be eclipsed by blight and An Gorta Mor in Ireland, and between 1 million and 2 million died in Ireland as a result of Russell’s government’s actions – or, rather, their lack of action. Deputations of those suffering would be greeted in London by Russell coldly reading them excerpts of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. While he lectured them, British soldiers guarded Ireland’s food exports, and millions continued to suffer – which in itself would have fateful consequences for relations between Ireland and Britain. In the words of the historian Simon Schama, An Gorta Mor ‘opened up a wound that would bleed the Union to death.’
Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery (Liberal, 1894-5)
The classic example of ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’ Rosebery would never have got the top job in British politics if he hadn’t been in a position to know a lot of influential people.
Edward Heath (Conservative, 1970-4)
James Callaghan (Labour, 1976-9)
Boris Johnson (Conservative, 2019-22)
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a writer and actor