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Tenure of Office as PM in the UK

by Gary J Sat Dec 16th, 2006 at 11:48:57 AM EST

The last three British Prime Ministers have served continuously for more than five years each. This tenure extended over more than one Parliament. It seems to me this is a convenient division between short and long terms, for the modern period.

The Parliament Act, 1910 reduced the maximum term of a Parliament from seven to five years (although the Parliament which passed that law was actually extended until 1918 due to the First World War).  Apart from the 1935-1945 Parliament all the post-1918 Parliaments have remained subject to the five year maximum limit.

See my analysis after the fold and try my poll about how long it takes for the average Prime Minister to go mad.


Looking at tenures, starting with David Lloyd George who took office in 1916, the position is as follows.

  1. David Lloyd George (Coalition Liberal) 1916-1922 (long term) - increasingly lost touch with opinion in the country and his government fell when the Conservative backbenchers rebelled against the coalition.

  2. Andrew Bonar Law (Conservative) 1922-1923 (short term) - had to resign because of ill health, shortly before his death.  

  3. Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) 1923-1924 (first term - short term) - called an election to get a mandate for protection and lost.

  4. Ramsay MacDonald (Labour) 1924 (first term - short term) - minority government, which fell after losing a vote in the House of Commons 364-198 when the Conservatives backed a Liberal amendment for an enquiry into the Campbell case and lost the subsequent election. The Campbell case related to whether the Attorney-General had improperly blocked the proposed prosecution of Campbell, a Communist newspaper editor who had allegedly incited troops to mutiny.

  5. Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) 1924-1929 (second term - short term) - lost the 1929 general election, so narrowly failed to reach long term status for this Premiership.

  6. Ramsay MacDonald (Labour until 1931, National Labour thereafter) 1929-1935 (second term - long term) - never one of the more effective Prime Ministers, he was pretty much a powerless figurehead by the time he retired as Prime Minister.

  7. Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) 1935-1937 (third term - short term) - highly regarded when he retired, but his reputation went into steep decline during the Second World War.

  8. Neville Chamberlain (Conservative) 1937-1940 (short term) - appeasement might have worked if the German leader had been reasonable, but as it was Hitler he had to deal with, this is another Prime Minister whose reputation declined sharply during the Second World War.

  9. Winston Churchill (Conservative) 1940-1945 (first term - long term) - he was in office from May 1940 to July 1945 so just qualified as a long term Prime Minister. Despite his wartime achievements, the people wanted a change so he lost the 1945 election - badly.

  10. Clement Attlee (Labour) 1945-1951 (long term) - the non Labour part of the population were clearly tired of him by 1951, but as the Labour Party won more votes than the Conservatives (48.8% to 48.0%) that year it was the electoral system that finished Attlee's premiership not unpopularity.

  11. Sir Winston Churchill (Conservative) 1951-1955 (second term - short term) - not his finest hour. He was eventually persuaded to resign, but he stayed on too long.

  12. Sir Anthony Eden (Conservative) 1955-1957 (short term) - if George W. Bush has Iraq, Anthony Eden had Suez. Eden was a disaster as Prime Minister. Allegedly retired for health reasons, but it was really because he was useless.

  13. Harold Macmillan (Conservative) 1957-1963 (long term) - after about 1962 the gloss wore off Super Mac and he was increasingly unpopular when ill-health forced him to resign (although to his lasting regret the illness turned out to be less severe than his Doctor had thought at the time of the resignation).

  14. Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative) 1963-64 (short term) - lost narrowly in the 1964 election.

  15. Harold Wilson (Labour) 1964-1970 (first term - long term) - he was certainly very unpopular during this government, but lost the 1970 election not too badly.

  16. Edward Heath (Conservative) 1970-1974 (short term) - another Prime Minister who was unpopular in his mid term. In the February 1974 election he asked "who governs" to which the people replied "not you, mate".

  17. Harold Wilson (Labour) 1974-1976 (second term - short term) - retired in mid Parliament, probably very wisely so as he was not in charge during the worsening crisis of the latter part of the decade.

  18. James Callaghan (Labour) 1976-1979 (short term) - overwhelmed by economic problems and trade union militancy, so he was defeated on a vote of confidence (310-311) and lost the 1979 election.

  19. Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) 1979-1990 (long term) - the longest serving Premier of the period and the mostly clearly out of touch by the time her party forced her out.

  20. John Major (Conservative) 1990-1997 (long term) - not the worst, but very far from the best of Prime Ministers. Lost the 1997 election.

  21. Tony Blair (Labour) 1997-to date (long term) - it all started so well, but by 2006 he is second only to Thatcher in being out of touch.

Of the above twenty-one terms, nine were long ones. It is a subjective analysis but I would judge that Lloyd George, MacDonald, Churchill, Macmillan, Thatcher, Major and Blair all passed their sell by date before leaving office after their long terms. Attlee was arguably not in that category, but after eleven years in office (five in the wartime coalition and six in the Labour Ministry) the leading Labour figures were looking vulnerable and exhausted by 1951.  

Poll
How long before PMs go mad?
. Before seeking power 54%
. One year 0%
. Two years 0%
. Three years 18%
. Four years 0%
. Five years 9%
. Six years 9%
. Seven years 0%
. Eight or more years 0%
. Mad? Absolute power is absolutely delightful 9%

Votes: 11
Results | Other Polls
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