Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
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The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the Head of Government of the United Kingdom. By an unwritten rule, the Prime Minister must be a Member of the House of Commons (the lower house of Parliament). The last Prime Minister from outside the Commons, Lord Salisbury, left the office in 1902.
Spencer Perceval remains the only Prime Minister to ever be assassinated, after an angry rich man from Liverpool lost the plot. It probably helps that the UK has gun control, which likely explains why assassination hasn't been served like garlic bread.
The Prime Minister is not directly elected. Instead, the public vote for a single Member of Parliament, a representative from their constituency. There are 650 MPs in total. If one political party has a majority in the Commons, then the leader of that party will be appointed Prime Minister. Otherwise, party leaders will attempt to form a coalition or lead a minority government. Whoever has the support of the most Members of Parliament will generally be the Prime Minister. Note that the monarch's role is purely constitutional, they cannot simply pick their favourite.
Evolution of the role
The position was not yet created, but historians accept Robert Walpole as the first Prime Minister, as he held the role of First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. He spent over twenty years in this role, although was not a Prime Minister in the modern sense, as he was chosen by the monarch, not Parliament. The existence of the role was denied by many, and only received official acknowledgement in 1905, as a member of the order of precedence, making Henry Campbell-Bannerman the first "official" PM. Legal recognition was only given by the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937, before then the "Prime Minister" was simply the most powerful member of the Cabinet, generally the Party Leader of the party with the most seats.
The number of ministers doubled in the 20th century, and today, the UK Cabinet is hilariously large: it's a conference of 118 ministers, of which 21 are senior ministers. This perversely makes the Prime Minister even more important for coordinating government policy, setting the political agenda and proposing legislation. However, much of this power is informal and heavily dependent on the cooperation of ministers, parties and MPs, so the role of the Prime Minister is quite different from e.g. the U.S. President.
Early Prime Ministers
After the mighty Robert Walpole set things going with a twenty-year stint up to 1742, there followed a succession of lords this and dukes of that. Only a few stand out from the pack:
- Lord North was PM from 1770 to 1782. He presided over the American Revolution, a slow-burning resentment which he stoked to roaring flames with his punitive taxes and laws. After defeat at Yorktown (and struggling to control a week-long series of religious riots in London), he became the first PM to lose a parliamentary motion of no confidence. But he managed to keep the Falkland Islands British. Yay.
- William Pitt the Younger took the job aged 24, fought off Napoleon and brought Ireland into political union with Britain, creating the United Kingdom.
- The Duke of Wellington, spent his 22 months as Prime Minister getting the first major electoral reform and Catholic emancipation laws through Parliament, despite blaming anything that went wrong in the country on liberals.
- Robert Peel introduced Income tax, free trade and an early industrial safety law, and restricted female and child labour in factories. All rather surprising for a conservative - his batting for that side included creating the country's first police force and making the aristocratic, land-owning Tory party into the modern, business-friendly Conservative Party we all know
- Benjamin Disraeli (Conservative) and W.E. Gladstone (Liberal) alternated Prime Ministerial duties from 1868 to 1885, and presided over a series of progressive laws that greatly improved life for most people in the UK; a majority of men became eligible to vote, women could own property, and trade unions were legalised. They are also the only nineteenth-century politicians that most twenty-first century people can name, if you don't count royals.
Prime Ministers 1900 to 1945
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (1885-1886, 1886-1892, 1895-1902)
Gascoyne-Cecil (Conservative), later 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, presided over the installation of Workmen's Compensation; the world's shortest war - the Anglo-Zanzibar War; and the Second South African War.
Arthur Balfour (1902-1905)
Another (Conservative). His cabinet was split over free trade. Mostly remembered nowadays for the so-called "Balfour Declaration" he made when he was Foreign Secretary promising a Jewish homeland in the Middle East which laid the foundation for the state of Israel further down the line. He was an advocate of eugenics.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-1908)
With the status of 'Prime Minister' being debated and controversial for centuries, Campbell-Bannerman was the first Prime Minister acknowledged in official publications. On the radical wing of the Liberal Party, his government legislated for trade union rights and free school meals and gave (white) South Africa self-government. He also supported arms reduction, Irish Home Rule, and reforming the House of Lords (then largely composed of hereditary peers). However ill-health cut short his leadership in 1908.
Herbert Henry Asquith (1908-1916)
Asquith (Liberal) endured a turbulent time, with the rise of the Suffragettes, Home Rule, the outbreak of WW1 and the Easter Rising. Asquith had a huge role in the development of the House of Commons and 10 Downing Street as the major powers of Parliament with the passage of the Parliament Act 1911. He increased social spending via tax increases in the 1909 People's Budget, which the Lords tried to prevent but he forced through the budget and Lords reform by calling two general elections in 1910. However unlike most Liberals he opposed votes for women; the rest of his party tried to hold a parliamentary vote on the topic in 1912 but it failed for procedural reasons. He led a coalition in World War 1 from 1915, but it collapsed in 1916 thanks to a lot of obscure politicking and he was replaced by Lloyd George with the support of press baron Lord Northcliffe (of the Daily Mail).
David Lloyd George (1916-1922)
To date the only Welsh Prime Minister, as well as being the only Prime Minister whose mother tongue was not English. Led Britain throughout the latter half of World War One by means of a Liberal-led coalition government which continued for four years afterwards; was the last Prime Minister from the Liberal Party. As well as the end of WWI, he introduced other radical changes: votes for some women, Irish independence, raised school leaving age to 14, extended unemployment benefit and pensions to most workers, improvements to public health, compensation for some industrial diseases. When World War II broke out he became somewhat controversial for arguing that Britain could not defeat Germany again and advocating for an armistice.
Andrew Bonar Law (1922-1923)
Tory politician Bonar Law was the shortest serving Prime Minister of last century, serving only seven months in office, as well as being the first Prime Minister born outside of the British Isles, in New Brunswick - today part of Canada, but at the time of Bonar Law's birth, a British colony. His brief and underwhelming tenure led to his being nicknamed "the unknown Prime Minister." He was also accused of treason while Leader of the Opposition, after declaring the Conservative Party's unconditional support for Ulster unionist militias at a time it was believed they were planning to rebel against the government.
Stanley Baldwin (1923-1924, 1924-1929, 1935-1937)
Taking over the reins from Bonar Law, Baldwin become one of the most important figures of inter-war Britain, leading the tories for fourteen years, including crushing the 1926 General Strike. His 24-29 administration was the most positive, with the creation of a nationalised Electricity Board let to a quadrupling of electricity use in the country along with lower costs, and he gave women new rights including the vote at 21, and introduced state pensions for widows and orphans. But his championing of disarmament (naively believing Hitler to be a reasonable man) led to the UK being insufficiently prepared for the war that everyone knew would come. The end came with Edward VIII's abdication crisis, which he was unable and unwilling to resolve.
Ramsay McDonald (1924, 1929-1935)
The first Labour PM remains a divisive figure on the left, but his failures were not all his fault, and whatever you think of his actions in the 1930s, before then he played a great role in turning Labour into a major party. A few months in 1924 were sufficient to prove that a socialist government would not embroil the country in bloody revolution, and his nationalisation of the BBC brought about the rise of the one of the most widely respected broadcasting organisations in the world. However, he was later overshadowed by Baldwin over the Depression: he was unable to think of a response except proposing large-scale cuts. He led a minority Labour government 1929-31 but when large sections of his party refused to support his austerity measures, he became leader of a National Government coalition including Conservatives and Liberals and very few Labour MPs. His 1931-35 government focused on foreign policy with limited success: his pacifism led to appeasement of Hitler, he opposed significant home rule for India, and presided at the failed 1933 London Economic Conference which was unable to do anything about the Great Depression. From 1933 his health deteriorated significantly, and he agreed with Baldwin to stand down in 1935.
Neville Chamberlain (1937-1940)
(heavy sigh) Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
Post World War Two Prime Ministers
Winston Churchill (1940-1945)
A cigar-chomping, top hat-wearing millionaire toff who was rubbish as Chancellor, and whose idea to invade Turkey was one of WWI's biggest blunders, Winston Churchill was an unlikely hero. However, his popular touch and ability to think outside the box were always assets, and thus he was launched, into the hot seat to manage the UK's gravest ever crisis, a job he mostly did well at (Italy's failure to collapse instantly being a major fly in the ointment). However, once peace came, he was as surprised as everyone else to find himself unceremoniously removed from power by an electorate underwhelmed by the prospect of Tory "business as usual." Voters always vote for the future.
Clement Attlee (1945-1951)
Clement Attlee (Labour) was an agnostic, and a man who nationalised the utilities and oversaw the creation of the British National Health Service by Health Minister Nye Bevan. As the first Labour Party Prime Minister with enough of a majority to do anything radical, he was a hero of socialists and consistently ranks highly in rankings of Prime Ministers. Was hugely influential in Indian Independence and developing Britain's own nuclear deterrent. He was Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government with Churchill, and arguably more effective than Churchill at the day to day management of the country in the war effort.
Winston Churchill again (1951-1955)
Churchill was returned to the office of Prime Minister in '51, but didn't make a great peace time leader. His health was very bad, suffering a series of strokes from 1949. Most of this second term was spent dealing with foreign affairs, one of which led to the joint UK-US coup of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in the early 1950s. He also broke the BBC's monopoly on television by launching ITV, paid for by advertising.
Anthony Eden (1955-1957)
Eden (Conservative) built an early reputation as a politician by opposing appeasement in the 1930s and as Foreign Secretary during World War Two, but pretty much nothing of note happened under him except the Suez Crisis, which led to his resignation (although he was also seriously ill).
Harold Macmillan (1957-1963)
Under the half-American Macmillan (Conservative) the UK tried to join the European Community, splitting the Conservative Party, but was vetoed by France. Famous for the first campaign soundbite anyone can remember - "You've never had it so good." An advocate of decolonization, he told South Africa to take note that "The wind of change is blowing through this continent."
Alec Douglas-Home (1963-1964)
After Macmillan resigned over health problems, there was some trouble over who would succeed him. It became clear that the Earl of Home was the only one who could command the support of the whole Conservative party, and so was appointed Prime Minister, despite being a member of the House of Lords. He disavowed his peerage, becoming Sir Alec Douglas-Home. A by-election was coming up, and he stood for the Conservatives. He was a Prime Minister, though not in either house of Parliament for 2 weeks, quite exceptional for the 20th century. Though not much happened while he was in office, he was notable as the only Prime Minister to sit two would-be kidnappers down, give them a beer, and talk them out of it. Ballsy.
Harold Wilson (1964-1970)
Wilson (Labour) legalised abortion and decriminalised homosexuality. He awarded medals to The Beatles, lowered the voting age to eighteen and brought in the first laws against racial discrimination. He is often regarded as the first "presidential" Prime Minister.
Edward Heath (1970-1974)
Under Heath (Conservative), Britain joined the European Community, violence in Northern Ireland got pretty bad, and the economy went a bit rotten, allegedly due to the Trade Unions. When he lost leadership of the Conservative party, he publicly sulked and whined about "that woman" and how everything she did was wrong.
Harold Wilson (1974-1976)
During his second time in office, Wilson gave sweeping Health and Safety rights to workers and managed to stop some of the Trade Union troubles by inviting their leaders for beer and sandwiches at Number 10.
James Callaghan (1976-1979)
Oh god, an atheist! Economy was getting messy as Callaghan (Labour) entered the office, since trade unions were demanding massive pay rises. When they weren't getting them, they were bringing the country to a halt, and the rises were given. Economy couldn't handle it. Nice man, but didn't have the
balls majority in Parliament to say no to the Trade Unions. Best known for the Winter of Discontent, a series of strikes that coincided with the very harsh winter 1978-79 and the breakdown of Callaghan's attempts at pay restraint. It is widely believed that he said "Crisis? What crisis?" in response, and this increased his reputation of as out of touch as well as powerless, but he didn't actually say this, it was a Sun headline. He is disliked in Scotland for the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum which found a majority in favour of devolution, but thanks to rules introduced by anti-devolutionists (specifically Labour MP George Cunningham) turnout was too low for the result to be valid and Scotland had to wait another 20 years.
Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990)
Mrs. Thatcher (Conservative) was elected on a manifesto of bringing the Trade Unions under control (after they ended up spending most of the 1970s on strike and causing countless problems), but then the witch went power-crazy. She sold everything the government owned, crushed the rights of Trade Unionists, led the nation to glorious victory over the Argentinian junta in the Falklands War, hated British involvement in the European Community but signed the Single European Act anyway, and then went crazy and introduced the Poll Tax despite even her closest aides' warnings. The aides turned out to be right, and she finally had to leave the office after 11 years.
John Major (1990-1997)
After Thatcher, all the Government owned was the railways, so Major (Conservative) sold them too. He also set up a hotline about traffic cones. In 1995 he resigned and challenged himself for the party leadership; unbelievably he won. Two years later, he put the same question to the nation, and wasn't so lucky. He was famous for his greyness, though his parents were circus folk and his half-brother Terry Major-Ball was a genial minor celebrity and author.
Tony Blair (1997-2007)
Blair (New Labour) brought about peace in Northern Ireland, introduced a national minimum wage, gave independence to the Bank of England (much like the US Federal Reserve), made gay rights in the UK happen (including civil partnerships), devolved power to Scotland and Wales - then ruined it all by going to war in Iraq, and going on a crazy authoritarian spree of giving powers to the executive and trying to make us all carry identity cards. He also basically sold peerages to loyal party statesmen.
He is the last Labour prime minister to win a general election.
Gordon Brown (2007-2010)
As Gordon Brown (Labour) entered office, the civil service made a series of major errors and the financial crisis began. For a terrible television performer, this seemed fatal. Then he made some flip-flops over the 10p tax rate, and the Expenses Scandal occurred. He absolutely had to go, in the eyes of the public. Perhaps he would've been a beloved Prime Minister if things out of his control hadn't happened so badly. On the other hand, he had been in charge of the economy for the previous ten years.
As of 2022, he is the most recent Labour leader to become prime minister.
David Cameron (2010-2016)
David Cameron (Conservative) came from nowhere in 2005 and ran on a platform of absolutely no policies other than ending Inheritance tax and saying, "Hey, I'm not Tony Blair." Being a much better media performer than Gordon Brown (especially in the first year the UK had televised debates) made a big difference. Aligning himself with massively cutting government spending and hating the jobless, he won the most seats, but didn't receive a majority and had to accept a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. While his cuts did seem to target solving the deficit crisis, many saw his cuts as ideological in nature and leaving Britain a much smaller-government nation. His government refused to single out spending on science and research for protection from cuts.
In 2015 the Tories won a majority in Parliament, allowing Cameron to push for an even more radically anti-working class agenda. He made a campaign promise to conduct a referendum on whether or not the UK would stay in or leave the EU, and scheduled a vote on June 2016. He preferred "remain", but allowed members of his party to campaign for Brexit alongside Nigel Farage.
Brexit won, forcing Cameron to resign in disgrace, forever remembered as the bloke who may have broken the union. Though, to be fair it's probably better than being remembered as "that PM that fucked a pig".
Theresa May (2016-2019)
Theresa May (Conservative), the former Home Secretary, took control of the party after Cameron made the ill-advised vote on Brexit. While she supported Remain, she insisted that Brexit was final, and that the UK would leave the EU in accordance to what the people voted. After repeatedly saying she wouldn't call for an early election, she called for an early election in 2017, confident that Jeremy Corbyn's unpopularity would have her increase her majority. But then came the actual election, and she lost her majority along with her authority, leaving her at the mercy of the DUP and the European Brexit negotiators.
Mired in intraparty turmoil post election, May went from having a popular and fearsome image (some called her the heir to Thatcher), she lost all of it as everyone realized she was a comically inept, woefully detached elitist who's not half as clever as she thinks she is. When her Brexit deal was rejected three different times by parliament, all humiliating defeats given to her by Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May finally resigned as leader and PM in 2019.
Boris Johnson (2019- 2022)
oh. oh fffffffffffFFFFFFFFFFUCK!
The British, nicer (which STILL isn't saying much), poor-man's Donald Trump, complete with watered down versions of the media circus acts, stunning incompetence, lack of respect for the rule of law, hatred for the poor, disgust of immigrants and refugees, sheer brutality, and downright sociopathic tendencies belied by Johnson's signature disconnection and narcissism that few can ever reach. In only five months after being voted in by 0.25% of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson (Conservative) broke the law, failed almost every single parliamentary vote since he became PM, (setting a new record each and every time) and failed to crash the country out of the European Union without a deal on October 31st, thanks to the previously mentioned repeated failures. But since he ran on a slogan of getting Brexit done, that put him in sharp contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, who equivocated on Brexit due to his party's severe divide between Leave and Remain voters. Johnson's 78 seat supermajority win in the 2019 election appeared to set the stage for five years of horror as he left the EU, intensified austerity like never before and showed utter lethargy and incompetence in the COVID-19 response. However, a series of scandals involving parties at Number 10 during lockdown and the appointment of a known sex offender as party whip forced Boris to resign in July 2022, although he remained in office until the next leader was chosen, which leads us to……
Cheese-obsessed cosplay Thatcher; became Prime Minister on September 5th 2022. Things did not go well during her short tenure, after her economic plan spectacularly backfired and led to a devaluation of the British Pound. The resulting chaos led to Truss announcing her resignation on 20 October, 2022, which makes her the shortest serving Prime Minister in Britain’s history.
Rishi Sunak (October 2022-incumbent)
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Johnson, Sunak is the richest prime minister in history as well as the first non-white MP to ever become prime minister.
As chancellor, he was shepherding the UK through the COVID-19 pandemic. His Thatcherite policies and proclivities led to untold human misery due his initial refusal to shut down the economy and his decision to reopen of the economy mid-pandemic.
Initially replacing Sajid Javid as chancellor, both Sunak and Javid resigned to protest Johnson's appointment of a literal sex predator to be party whip, leading to Johnson's resignation. Sunak ran against Truss for leadership of the Conservative Party, losing to her after five rounds of voting.
But within 6 weeks, Truss lost support from the public and killed her party's PR so thoroughly, she became the shortest serving prime minister in UK history. The party went "Fuck it" and switched to the runner-up in Sunak, the only person who received the 100 recommendations from sitting MPs necessary to succeed Truss.
Now the first Indian, South Asian, and Hindu prime minister in history, Sunak is also the richest incumbent MP due to his background as a former Goldman Sachs executive. Three guesses as to how different he'll be from Truss and Johnson. Spoiler alert: he won't be.
- List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom
- Historical rankings of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom
- Sir Alec Douglas-Home was an Earl when he became Prime Minister, but renounced his peerage and was very soon a Member of the Commons.
- The eugenics movement Britain wants to forget, New Statesman, 9 Dec 2010
- Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, UK Parliament website
- The campaign for women's suffrage: key figures, British Library
- See the Wikipedia article on H. H. Asquith.
- David Lloyd George, UK Parliament website
- See the Wikipedia article on David Lloyd George.
- The legacy of the Second Baldwin Government, Res Publica blog, 2014
- Formed in haste, Julian Glover, The Guardian, 4 April 2004
- See the Wikipedia article on Ramsay MacDonald.
- Churchill’s Secret, John H Mather, Churchill Bulletin, Bulletin #93 - Mar 2016
- See the Wikipedia article on Anthony Eden.
- 'Crisis? What crisis?', BBC, 12 Sept 2000
- Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 1995
- Open Letter to the Chancellor, reported in The Guardian. October, 2010.
- Wright, Oliver (9 May 2015). "Unshackled from Coalition partners, Tories get ready to push radical agenda". The Independent.