Best Prime Minister We Never Had

John Rentoul

M2 Best Prime Minister We Never HadIt is an old device, but a good one, and Francis Beckett seems to have put together a fine collection of essays for a book on a variation of the theme, The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, to be published next month:

Austen Chamberlain Stephen Bates

J. R. Clynes Phil Woolas

Lord Halifax Hugh Purcell

Oswald Mosley Nigel Jones

Herbert Morrison Eric Midwinter

Hugh Gaitskell Robert Taylor

Rab Butler Chris Proctor

George Brown Paul Routledge

Norman Tebbit Peter Cuthbertson

Michael Foot Anne Perkins

Denis Healey Dianne Hayter

Neil Kinnock Greg Rosen

John Smith Francis Beckett

David Miliband Peter Beckett

They are not all, obviously, better than the prime ministers we actually had, but all are interesting exercises in counterfactual history.

Unsurprisingly, I would nominate Denis Healey and David Miliband as the “best” on that list, with competition recently from David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid, Alan Milburn and Alan Johnson.

This is Beckett’s list of the 10 who would have “made the most difference”, taken from the Biteback press release:

1.       Denis Healey. If Healey had become Labour leader instead of Michael Foot, Labour would still have lost in 1983, but – as Dianne Hayter suggests in The Prime Ministers Who Never Were – could have staged sufficient of a recovery to lead Labour back into government five years later.  Then, Healey as PM could have halted the right wing ideological tide, and Britain would still have a thriving public sector with natural monopolies like rail still in public ownership.

2.       J.R. Clynes.  These days almost nobody has heard of Clynes, but he came within a whisker of defeating Ramsay Macdonald for the leadership and becoming Labour’s first Prime Minister. A far more grounded politician than Macdonald, he would not have split the Party into warring tribes, nor panicked in 1926 when the forged Zinoviev letter surfaced, and we would not have had to wait until 1945 to see a reforming Labour government with an overall majority. Phil Woolas – his greatest admirer, bar none – thinks he might even have stopped the rise of Nazism in Europe.

3.       John Smith.  Had Smith not died in 1994, nothing could have prevented him from becoming Prime Minister in 1997, and we would never have heard of New Labour.  The main beneficiary would have been public services, for Smith had become a convert to “hypothecation” – earmarking taxies for specific public services, so that people did not mind paying them so much. The American alliance would have  been less dominant, and it is unlikely we would have gone to war in Iraq.

4.       Norman Tebbit. After forcing Margaret Thatcher out, the Conservatives installed a leader who provided no clear ideological lead.  A clear Thatcherite lead, provided by a figure as determined and tough as Norman Tebbit, might just have done.  Had he stood, and had he been able to hold his Party together, the Thatcher revolution could have continued unchecked, with, as Peter Cuthbertson shows, profound consequences for Britain’s future.

5.       Neil Kinnock. Underestimating Neil Kinnock has been a public pastime ever since the 1992 election. Had he won in 1992, he would now be remembered as a great reforming Prime Minister, and perhaps as the leader of Britain’s first coalition government since 1945. He would have been able more or less to unite his warring party around a raft of moderate reforms which Greg Rosen describes, and to have established a pattern for social democratic government.

6.       R.A. Butler.  Butler almost became Prime Minister twice – in 1957, and again in 1963.  Chris Proctor sensibly goes for the 1957 moment. It could have been a disaster, for he had the capacity to split the Tory Party down the middle. But it could – as Proctor suggests – have permanently shifted the centre of gravity of British politics several yards to the left.

7.       Austen Chamberlain. Much the brighter of Joseph Chamberlain’s two politician sons (the other was Neville, who did become PM), Austen Chamberlain would have been far less easy-going than the famously laid-back Stanley Baldwin. His political strategy would have aimed to stifle the rise of the Labour Party, and he might well have succeeded in maintaining the old pre-first world war two-party system.

8.       Michael Foot. Foot is here, not because he led Labour into the 1983 election – everyone knew he was going to lose that – but because he nearly became PM when Harold Wilson resigned in 1976, when Foot was 63.  He was a much tougher and pragmatic character than he’s normally given credit for. He and Jack Jones would have been able to keep the unions onside as Callaghan could not.  He would not have made Callaghan’s mistake of deferring the election until after the winter of 1978-9; he would have gone straight to the country in the autumn of 1978, and probably won.

9.       David Miliband.  Had Miliband stood against Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership and won, he could well have avoided defeat in the 2010 election, as Peter Beckett suggests.  But it would have been at the expense of a chronically divided Party, whose wars would certainly have hampered his long term effectiveness.

10.    Herbert Morrison. Morrison would come higher in the list, if the man who actually got the job – Clement Attlee – had not been such an effective PM.  But Eric Midwinter makes a strong case for Morrison being at least as effective, and perhaps more electorally successful.

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  • olly_2001
  • Howard Denton

    We have been here before. In January 2010, John blogged about the Best Prime Minister We Never Had. The centre of his attention on that occasion was David Blunkett, to which he added a few other names from the Thatcher and New Labour years. To start a debate, I left a comment:

    How about before the New Labour years?

    The best Prime Ministers we never had since 1945.

    R A Butler – He missed his chance three times in 1953, 1957 and 1963 (David Miliband take note). Butler may have won in 1964 because he wouldn’t have panicked after the Orpington by-election;

    Hugh Gaitskell – The forerunner to Blair;

    Barbara Castle – She may have been the first woman Prime Minister if Callaghan hadn’t intervened;

    Iain Macleod – If he had lived the 1970’s would have been a very different story;

    Denis Healey – A colossus who then went on to save the Labour party in 1981; and

    John Smith – Because he would have muted the Blair/Brown feud ensuring Labour achieved much more in office than it has.

    Roy Jenkins rules himself out having chosen to defect to the SDP.

    And finally:

    The Prime Minister who would guarantee a hung parliament at the 2010 election.

    Alan Johnson – January is far from over and Peter Mandelson is not happy.

    (Well, we got a hung parliament but the wrong Prime Minister and Mandelson is still not happy.)

    John then updated his post:

    I said it was a first draft, but I missed Cecil Parkinson and Charles Clarke in the list of people who were once “next prime minister”, and Events Dear Boy, Events, adds some excellent suggestions in the Comments for other “best prime ministers we never had” before the Thatcher years; and proposes another category of “Prime Ministers who should not have it to the top of the greasy pole”, namely Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, John Major and Gordon Brown. More later.

    The “more later” never happened until this post.

    There are three benchmarks needed to judge a successful Prime Minister: winning elections; having a long period in office (a second or third term) and; more importantly, changing the political weather. And it goes without saying, that their party has to be united.

    On this basis, the inclusion of Foot, Kinnock, George Brown and Tibbet has to be questioned.

    The Lost Leaders by Edward Pearce dealt with Macleod, Healey and Butler; three who without question would have made excellent Prime Ministers.

    Pearce left Roy Jenkins out because the two never got on but it was the correct decision; he would have split the Labour party over Europe. With Healey there would be have been no SDP, and Thatcher may not have survived beyond 1981.

    Macleod, had he lived, would have replaced Heath in 1972 and gone on to win the subsequent election.

    On top of the heap has to be R A Butler. He would have done the job with ease but wasn’t ruthless enough to seize the crown. In 1953 (surprisingly left out from the Biteback’s press release) he could have climbed to the top of the greasy pole; Churchill having suffered a stroke, and Eden was out of action due to a botched bile duct operation.

    As well as surveying the past, it’s worth pondering the ‘what if’ of 2010. If Alan Johnson had replaced Gordon Brown, would David Cameron be in Downing Street today? Would Labour have won enough seats to secure a coalition with the LibDems?

    Cameron failed at the election because he couldn’t sell his policies and hadn’t done enough to detoxify the Tory party, and it these small matters that will stop him becoming a successful Prime Minister. Not only that but he has another shortcoming. He will fail to keep the patient happy during the painful medicine we will have to swallow from April.

    With Alan Johnson, with his buckets of empathy and self-depreciating humour, it would have been very different.

    We are where we are. We have a Prime Minister who can’t muster a few planes; who keeps at it with the DIY Big Society mumbo jumbo; and who has set the date for a referendum a week after the second-in-line-to-the-throne is getting married. The heir to Blair, he is not.

    Cameron should have skipped over Blair’s tomb and studied how Harold Wilson went about the art of governing in 1974 and 1975. Wilson did not form a coalition in 1974 and knew all about organising the 1975 referendum to get the result he wanted, which kept the Labour party together.

    What may keep Cameron in post are the activities of the People’s Party. Labour, with a blank sheet of paper, the wrong leader and a non-credible Shadow Chancellor do not offer a viable alternative. Step forward Peter Mandelson. One doesn’t have to be a Bletchley Park code-breaker to decipher the message.

    Mandelson is indispensable to the Labour party and the comrades should listen to what he has to say over the coming days.

    It is too early to have included David Miliband in the above list or to have given up on Alan Johnson.

  • highlandjock

    Neil Kinnock may well have been a great PM, but he self-destroyed with his ridiculous posturing “Well, yeah”, “yeah”, “yeah”!!! What a childish fellow he must be.
    Incidentally, his and his wife’s plundering of European coffers with their huge incomes therefrom, show his personal greed. The only reason he was appointed EU Commissioner (unelected) was because he was a failed politician, NOT because he was good at the job!

  • highlandjock

    Peter Mandelson? Are you kidding? How could we have one who practises a minority sport so blatantly? He’s also far too oleaginous, and just loves Russian oligarchs….

  • highlandjock

    So true. He was by far the best health minister, because he actually listened to the experts, instead of telling them what his prejudices were. He was SO right about immigration, and his views on this are becoming more obviously true every day, even to idiots like Gordon Brown, who wantonly flooded us with invaders….

  • highlandjock

    I would have agreed with you until recently, but his outpourings on Gaddafi are beyond the pale, and he also does not seem to appreciate the dangers of Islam, that stone-age superstition.

  • willc92

    I can’t wait for it to come out, but the choice of subjects does seem a bit skewed- 9 labour, moseley and only 3 tories. What about Michael Heseltine? Or Lord Hailsham?

  • willc92

    The point is not that they were the best PMs we never had, the point is that they were the most likely alternative PMs. Patten (although an excellent man), would never have had a chance of becoming PM. Even if he held Bath in 1992, and either succeeded or replaced Major, he would have been slaughtered by Blair in either ‘97 or ‘01.

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