Boris Johnson seems absolutely determined to resist calls for him to step down. He is in good company. British prime ministers – with the exception of Harold Wilson and David Cameron – don’t tend to “go gentle into that good night”, preferring instead to cling on, limpet-like until their party is removed from office at the ballot box or, like Johnson’s immediate predecessor Theresa May, they are effectively forced out by colleagues hoping (not altogether unreasonably, it turns out) that a change of leader may persuade the public to forget their failings and give them a second chance.
As post-war political history shows us, even serious ill health hasn’t been enough to prevent previous prime ministers trying hard to bag and then hang on to the top job for as long as they can – although it has, for at least a couple of them, eventually furnished a convenient excuse for bowing out earlier than they might have wished.
Winston Churchill , for instance, was already in pretty poor shape by the time he regained the premiership in 1951 at the age of 76, and many of his colleagues – not least his ambitious foreign secretary, Anthony Eden – hoped he would retire after a year or so. But, in spite of an array of medical problems and an increasingly evident decline in his powers, he refused to relinquish the prize. And such was the Conservative Party’s concern not to be seen to be ditching the country’s iconic wartime leader that, even after he suffered a massive stroke in June 1953 that left him incapacitated for months, his colleagues connived in keeping the full story from the public.
Things might have been different for Churchill had Eden, ironically enough, not been ill himself as the result of a botched operation earlier that year. So serious were its consequences, in fact, that by the time Churchill was prevailed upon to reluctantly call it a day in the spring of 1955, Eden, too, was already long past his best. Even though his premiership got off to a superb start – he called an election almost immediately after taking over and increased the Tories’ overall majority from 17 to 60 – he was soon driving his ministers to distraction with what many of them regarded as his unwarranted interference in the running of their departments.
Naturally, their irritation pales into insignificance with the cause of Eden’s eventual departure in early 1957 – his responsibility for the doomed attempt to snatch back the Suez Canal in the autumn of 1956 and the knowledge among his colleagues that he had misled Parliament in denying any collusion with Israel and France in the build-up to the operation.
The episode emphasises the role (one reprised half a century later under Tony Blair) that a major miscalculation in foreign and military affairs can play in bringing down a premiership, especially when combined with a prime minister being seen to have been less than honest with the public on the issue. But it also risks blinding us to the equally important role played by far more mundane domestic considerations.
Because Suez looms so large in the story of Eden’s undoing, we forget that soon after the election, his chancellor, Rab Butler was forced to introduce a humiliating emergency budget just months after he had helped win the 1955 election with something of a giveaway before it. We forget, too, that – partly as a result – less than a year into his premiership Eden was being called on (by a disappointed Daily Telegraph, no less) to demonstrate “the smack of firm government”.
Indeed, it was those domestic difficulties, even though they weren’t reflected in a particularly significant loss of support in the polls (which came out far less frequently in those days anyway), that led Eden to reshuffle both Butler and Macmillan, much to the chagrin of both – one reason, along with their transparent desire to succeed him, why they did little or nothing to help their boss out over Suez and its aftermath.
In the event, it was the 62-year-old Macmillan who, after Eden resigned (not altogether unreasonably) pleading ill health, “emerged” as his replacement following “soundings” of the parliamentary party taken by senior Conservatives. And like Eden, he began well, turning things around after Suez and aligning the political and economic cycle to ensure that voters had “never had it so good”, resulting not only in a third consecutive election victory for the Tories at the general election of 1959 but yet another substantial increase in their Commons majority.
Again, however, a combination of economic difficulties at home and policy controversy abroad (not least his embrace of the end of empire and his failed attempt to join the EEC), soon saw his government run into trouble. Moreover, the sharp increase in the commissioning of opinion polls made its unpopularity even more glaringly obvious for all to see, as did a series of stunning by-election reverses – probably the first time, but by no means the last time, that such defeats would play a role in putting a premature end to a premiership.
The same can be said for another key factor in Macmillan’s early departure (which, like Eden’s, was officially put down to ill health) – namely the appearance of an opposition leader who appears more in touch with the public’s mood and priorities and who they can imagine standing on the steps of No 10. The Profumo affair in 1963, along with 1962’s infamous Night of the Long Knives, during which a panicky Macmillan sacked half his Cabinet, may have confirmed voters’ suspicions that he was past it. But Wilson did a fair bit to help them toward that conclusion.
Whether Labour’s Neil Kinnock played as big a role in Margaret Thatcher’s departure in November 1990 is rather more doubtful. But, in truth, he didn’t really need to. All the other elements were there: major policy failures and controversies (the Poll Tax and Europe); economic difficulties (the return of inflation worries); alienated, ambitious and seriously worried colleagues (Howe, Heseltine and Major); the party’s declining support revealed in poll after poll and dramatised by one or two spectacular by-election defeats (most obviously Eastbourne); an obvious waning (possibly due to incipient illness) of the premier’s powers; and a sense, overall, that they had done the job the party had needed them to do and that, since they were no longer trusted by voters and had gone from being an electoral asset to an electoral liability, it was time to spin the wheel and move on.
A look at that list – and at the history books more generally – should surely worry Johnson, especially now that Labour (probably for the first time since Blair) can boast a leader of the opposition who, for all his lack of charisma, probably passes the proverbial ‘blink test’ as a potential prime minister. Just as they were under Theresa May, most, if not all, of the criteria for an early exit would appear to be met. And if Johnson does eventually go, then, unlike some of his predecessors, the current occupant of No 10 won’t be able to plead infirmity – except, his critics would say, moral infirmity – as even the flimsiest of excuses.