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Will the next PM come unstuck? An interview with Sir Anthony Seldon

22 March 2024

Ed Thornton hears advice on how to buck a recent trend in Downing Street

Sir Anthony Seldon

Sir Anthony Seldon

THE past few decades have not been a golden era for British Prime Ministers, says a man who knows more than most about those who have occupied 10 Downing Street — Sir Anthony Seldon, the eminent historian and educationist.

In addition to his authoritative insider accounts of the past seven Prime Ministers, written with various respected academics, a revised and updated version of his book The Impossible Office? The history of the British Prime Minister (Cambridge University Press, 2021) (Books, 30 July 2021), is published this month.

The original edition marked the tercentenary of the office of Prime Minister. The latest edition covers the 57 individuals who have served, from Robert Walpole to Rishi Sunak.

Speaking to the Church Times this month, Sir Anthony said that every Prime Minister in recent years had come “unstuck”. Mr Sunak had found “life very difficult”; Liz Truss had been the shortest-serving PM ever, lasting a month and a half; Boris Johnson had resigned two years after winning a landslide (“without precedent in history”); Theresa May had had “a very difficult premiership”, largely because of the wrangling over Brexit; David Cameron had lasted for six years, resigning over the result of the Brexit referendum; and Gordon Brown had lasted three.

It was not a new problem, however. “John Major was perpetually in difficulty, in crisis mode,” particularly during his last five years, after Britain had exited the ERM, Sir Anthony said. Tony Blair achieved much, “but he didn’t remodel the country in the way that he said he was going to remodel the country”; and Gordon Brown had “had perpetual problems” during his time in office.

Since the end of the Second World War, there have been two “top-tier prime ministers”, Sir Anthony believes: Clement Attlee (1945-51) and Margaret Thatcher (1979-90). “Both of them reshaped Britain fundamentally. No one else has done so.”

What did they have that others have lacked? There is no simple formula, but Sir Anthony believes that age matters. Cameron and Blair were both under the age of 45 when they entered Downing Street, “the youngest PMs for 200 years”.

Another qualification for the job is a broad experience of government, he argues. “If you look at the top nine performing prime ministers in British history from 1721, all of them had been in Parliament for more than 20 years, apart from one: Pitt the Younger, who was only 24 when he took over — and he’d learned his craft from his father, who’d been Prime Minister.”

Mr Sunak entered Parliament only in 2015, and ascended the government ranks rapidly; but his ministerial experience before he reached No. 10 was confined to the Treasury — a crucial post; but PMs in the past tended to have much broader experience of government.

Another problem, Sir Anthony says, is that recent Prime Ministers have not been skilled in “the craft of leadership”. He observes: “No one becomes head of an organisation knowing very little about how to do the job. But people think they can walk into Downing Street with a coach-load of special advisers in their mid-twenties and run the country. They can’t.”

Time to prepare to become Prime Minister is sorely lacking: “You could [be] not Prime Minister one day, and then, suddenly, in you go, with no time.”

Is there a problem with the way that party leaders — and, therefore, Prime Ministers — are elected? “In a head-of-state system, like in America, the President goes through the gruelling caucuses and primaries, but the whole country then is the electorate,” he says, “whereas here, it’s a much narrower group.”

In the past, the choice of Conservative leader was decided by MPs, who “had a much better idea of who was going to be good at the job”; the incoming leader was also helped by having the backing of the majority of MPs. Since William Hague reformed the party’s leadership processes when he was leader, however, party members have had the final say, which was how the party ended up with Ms Truss as leader, even though she came second to Mr Sunak among the party’s MPs.

THERE will be a General Election within the next year. If the opinion polls turn out to be correct, Sir Keir Starmer will be the first Labour Prime Minister for 14 years. At 61, Sir Keir would be the oldest to assume office since James Callaghan, who became Prime Minister in 1976, aged 64.

Sir Anthony believes that to be “a good age to take over” at, and Sir Keir to be “the best-qualified incomer for a long time into that position”, having led Labour through a period of transition after the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and held significant jobs outside politics, most notably as Director of Public Prosecutions.

He was, none the less, elected to the House of Commons only in 2015, and has never held a government post; so he should surround himself with people who understand how government works, Sir Anthony says. He suggests, for example, Sir Olly Robbins, a former Europe adviser to the Prime Minister, “who has worked at the centre of government and knows how Downing Street and the Treasury works”. Sir Keir will also need the counsel of “courageous, independent-minded people”, who understand the myriad aspects of government: the way in which the political and financial years work, how Whitehall functions, and relations with overseas governments.

AlamySir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak at the State Opening of Parliament, last November

“He needs to have a top team who are calm, loyal, discreet, highly intelligent, highly principled, whom he has to rely on. The Prime Minister has no executive power: he has to work through other people. He has to appoint the right ministers. Liz Truss just appointed people who agreed with her.”

This is where civil servants’ contribution is crucial, Sir Anthony says. “You need to have people who are not yes-men: people with an independent power base. If the Prime Minister doesn’t like the advice of a special adviser, they’re fired, and they’re toast. If he doesn’t like a civil servant, well, the civil servant moves on to another job. But it means that the civil servant is more likely to tell truth to power than somebody who owes their entire job to the Prime Minister.”

Mr Johnson’s administration was suspicious of experienced civil servants, Sir Anthony recalls. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, was replaced by Simon Case, “a very capable man, but still in his thirties, to run the entire Civil Service, the biggest organisation in the country. . . There’s a sense of trust and respect for the system which has been lost.”

All of the “top-tier” Prime Ministers “have been people of moral conviction and moral authority”, Sir Anthony says. Does he detect such character in Sir Keir?

“He’s obviously a deep thinker; he’s clearly very concerned about people; he’s clearly very principled. He can clearly operate under pressure; he’s shown a lot of courage and resolve.”

WHICHEVER party wins the election, Sir Anthony hopes that the office of Prime Minister will be held by someone who prioritises the long-term good of the country over short-term political advantage.

Prime Ministers are in danger of doing things “not because they’re right, but because they are in the interests of their party and their re-election. And so that moves us towards populism, where leaders jettison ethical values — and human rights, often — for the sake of gaining support of large numbers.”

Around the world, he says, “democracy is on the retreat.” It is “a worry” that Donald Trump — “a liar, an abuser of people, and an abuser of trust” — has a serious chance of being re-elected President of the most powerful country on earth.

Sir Anthony has been encouraged, however, by “bright examples” of better political leaders, especially female ones, such as Angela Merkel in Germany, and the leaders of Latvia and Estonia — and, of course, President Zelensky of Ukraine, “who shows extraordinary courage and a sense of sacrifice”.

“It goes wrong if it’s all about the leader, and the leader’s gaining and retention of power; and it goes right when there’s a sense of a higher aspiration, a higher calling, a sense of humanity, a sense of thinking ahead to future generations, not just to the next General Election.”

Gaining such a sense of perspective is difficult to do when the day-to-day demands of high office squeeze out time for reflection. “One thing every former Prime Minister tells me is that they didn’t have time to stand back and reflect on their values and what they were trying to do, or a sense of history,” he says.

If Sir Keir wishes to join the ranks of history’s “top-tier” Prime Ministers, it is advice that he might do well to heed.

The Impossible Office? The history of the British Prime Minister — revised and updated by Anthony Seldon, with Jonathan Meakin, Illias Thoms, and Tom Egerton, is published by Cambridge University Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-00942-977-1.

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