Have we ever had such an awful prime minister?

I first discovered ‘politics’ when I was about 16. I’d just entered the sixth form, having taken only four years to do my O-levels and had joined the Debating Society (yes, we had them in inner city grammar schools in Leicester back then). It was at the time of the 1959 ‘Life is better under the Conservatives, don’t let Labour ruin it’ General Election, that pitted ‘Supermac’ against the cerebral Hugh Gaitskell at a time when the two main parties were still mopping up around 90% of the votes and, or so it seemed, nearly 100% of the seats between them.

So, my ‘involvement’ goes back a long way and, being a bit of an historian back then, I have experienced at first hand and read about a motley collection of mostly men, who have climbed the greasy pole of Prime Ministership and slid down it again usually into the comforting embrace of a peerage. After their demise, with one or two notable exceptions, few ordinary people have a good or kind word to say about any of them, while many who worked for them still generally paint a favourable picture, even if a few warts cannot be avoided. Do we really think that most of our politicians are really out to screw us? Surely, that says as much about our take on life as it does about the quality or talent on display at any given time.

Well, here we are after another week of resignations, photo opportunities, hyperbole and analogy. How many high viz jackets and hard hats does he have? If I were Peppa Pig or Kermit the Frog I would be suing a certain ‘World King’ by now for taking my name in vain. I’ve thought about it and I reckon that in Mr Johnson we have one of the worst British Prime Ministers of all time. The charge sheet is pretty long against him. Above all, for me he is an embarrassment every time he attempts to strut the world’s stage let alone when he pretends to drive another tram, train or forklift truck for the benefit of his personal photographer, paid for apparently out of the public purse. We appear to be getting ‘government by photo opportunity and sound bite’ and it annoys the hell out of me. What about you?

Some may wish to defend him by parroting the slogan that he ‘got Brexit done’. But, come on, folks, Brexit is far from ‘done’. “Ah”, some might say; “Boris, lovable Boris, talks our language. He understands what the man in the street thinks”. Besides the fact that, for past one and a half millennia not that many folks on these islands have been thinking in Latin, let alone Ancient Greek, do we really want our political leaders to be ‘common’? I personally would welcome a bit of gravitas now and then.

I haven’t got much faith in the rest of his crew either. Announcing policy on Twitter, as Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, recently attempted to do, I equate with chalking slogans on walls. As for partying in No 10 while the rest of the country was supposed to be locking down, the cynic might say that this was going on up and down the country anyway in clandestine locations, and those the police caught were dealt with appropriately. So, we know what to expect then?

I think I’ll stop there. So, you LDV ‘historians’, how do YOU think that our present PM compares with some of his less than illustrious predecessors? The big question, of course, is “Will he hang on to power?” As for the rest of his team of largely second teamers, it appears to have been so far a case of ‘our Leader, right or wrong’. Given what might happen, you have to ask yourself whether it was a wise career move on their part to answer his call, or was the lure of the government limo and all that goes with it too great to resist?

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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  • John Nicholson 7th Feb '22 - 1:40pm

    This is a heartening comment, and I agree completely. Like you, I discovered politics around the age of 16, albeit that was 50 years ago rather than the later 1950s. As a hobby, I have read a lot of political history, though I am not a historian, and I think Boris Johnson is, by miles, the worst Prime Minister this country has ever had. Even the notionally poor ones, like Canning, were not poor because of shameless dishonesty, but rather due to lack of competence. Which I suppose is also in the mix with Johnson, even though it is eclipsed by his more general venality. We should never forgive the Conservative Party for inflicting him on the country.

  • Boris is an excellent reason for not abolishing the monarchy. Be careful what you wish for.

  • Adrian Sanders 7th Feb '22 - 2:11pm

    Jim Dapre makes an excellent point about the Monarchy. On the other hand, if you get a bad Monarch, how do you vote them out of office?

  • Have we ever had such an awful prime minister?

    Not in my (long) lifetime.. However, we seem to get the politicians (and media) we ‘want’..Once upon a time a grasp of world events, political knowhow and basic common sense was a requirement..Currently, being none of those things ‘qualifies’ you. The abilty to repeat meaningless three word slogans and be ‘a bit of a lad’ is all that’s needed..

  • Barry Lofty 7th Feb '22 - 2:27pm

    John as you would expect I could not agree more with your portrayal of the dismal position we find ourselves in with regards to the present government. In my long life I have witnessed many politicians from all party’s, that I disliked or disagreed with but the present shower take the biscuit, the Thatcher government would come a close second, but I was a small businessman during her time and although she was portrayed as a Grocers daughter she had obviously forgotten her routes when she reached No10. I know many think it would be better for the Lib Dems if Johnson stayed in power and they are probably right, but the country is crying out for a respected leader and government now before we sink any lower.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 7th Feb '22 - 2:51pm

    John, I think I would argue that both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were worse, in their different ways. I know I did recently write an article about how Boris Johnson should resign for violations of human rights during lockdown. But if there had not been a pandemic, he might quite possibly have just drifted through his term of office, not necessarily doing any drastic harm.
    I feel that Margaret Thatcher was worse in that she very deliberately condoned and empowered racists, with her remark about “some people rather feel that they are being swamped by people of a different culture”. I know Boris made horribly insensitive comments about women who wear burkas, but the “letterbox” comment was actually in the context of going on to say that he was opposed to the idea of banning the burka. I’m not defending him, but I don’t think any of his remarks have been as deliberately harmful as Thatcher’s “swamped” remark. Thatcher also seemed to glorify wealth. Her remark about “the good Samaritan didn’t just have good intentions. He had money!” (Quoted from memory, but that was the gist).
    Tony Blair began well, but took Britain into an illegal war, which would result in the deaths of thousands of civilians, and terrible suffering to thousands more. Illegal parties seem rather trivial in comparison.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 7th Feb '22 - 3:01pm

    And I should also mention that Thatcher’s government were responsible for Section 28. Boris is socially liberal by comparison

  • James Fowler 7th Feb '22 - 3:06pm

    At heart, I take BJ to be a late ’90s tabloid journalist, a sort of FHM PM. He wants it to be forever 1987. Bonuses, Bolly, Birds etc. Perhaps we could add Bullshit and Backhanders to that list too. He’s not snobbish or exclusive, he wants everyone to ‘Get a bit of Sun on their face’ to borrow that paper’s tagline. Like all PMs he’s a product of his times – the ones that we all lived through as well, remember. The problem is that he’s in completely the wrong times now. It’s a pity. Right now we should be in year two of the great Boris Boom with champagne fountaining out of the top of Canary Wharf. Instead we’re stuck in an endless grind. It’s probably no consolation, but this was never what he intended.

  • Barry Lofty 7th Feb '22 - 3:10pm

    The arrival of the pandemic just highlighted the incompetence of Boris Johnson and his government in my opinion and just to set the record straight Margaret Thatcher was reputed to have said” British shopkeepers could learn a thing or two from people of a different culture ” or words to that affect!! Just what you need to keep morale up in difficult times for ALL independents.

  • John Marriott 7th Feb '22 - 3:19pm

    The irony is that, in a bizarre way, you could argue that COVID did for both Johnson and Trump. Who knows, without the virus the latter might still be in the White House. As for the former, we shall have to wait and see.

  • Chris Moore 7th Feb '22 - 3:26pm

    Tony Blair and Anthony Eden did grave damage to the UK with their respective reckless and unjustifiable military adventures. The Iraq War and its aftermath caused hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths and de-stabilised the Middle East and parts of Africa.

    (On the other hand, Blair worked resiliently to advance peace in Ireland and was ultimately successful. Eden was a towering Secretary of State for War in WWII.)

    Margaret Thatcher gave ideological propulsion to the atomisation of society, as if any were needed.

    Neville Chamberlain unsuccessfully sough to appease Hitler. (Revisionist accounts of his time as PM are not true to the contemporary reality.)

    Johnson is small beer in comparison to these very serious figures with their very serious errors.

    (I’m limiting myself to the 20th and 21st centuries. Or the list would be longer.)


  • Andrew Toye 7th Feb '22 - 3:51pm

    Tony Blair for the Iraq war, but he then was misled by that ‘dodgy dossier’; Sir Anthony Eden for Suez, and Margaret Thatcher for her socially divisive policies – all could be in the running for the wooden spoon. (Horrible though her policies and actions, Thatcher at least did not lie – she just went ahead and did them.) Johnson tops the lot for his lying and incompetence. Brexit was “done”, but sold to the public on a ‘dodgy dossier’ of his own making.

  • Malcolm Todd 7th Feb '22 - 3:58pm

    What on earth has the Monarchy got to do with it? Jim Dapre and Adrian Sanders may not have noticed, but having a hereditary High Mugwump hasn’t actually stopped Johnson becoming prime minister or doing whatever he likes while he’s in office. (The courts, parliament and even the media have rightly thrown some roadblocks in his way, but funnily enough countries without monarchies have all those things too.)

  • Theresa May was dreadful, but at least she acted out of a sense of public duty and conviction. Ditto Thatcher and Blair: profoundly wrong, but they believed their actions benefited the nation. This joker is a dilettante in everything, and only in it for himself. But what is even worse is the damage being done to our democracy and attacks on the judiciary, the right to protest, a ‘hard Brexit’, lying in Parliament, lying outside Parliament. And when pushed to apologise, that vile slur on the leader of the opposition. Has any other PM ever sunk that low?

  • @ Catherine Jane Crossland “Boris is socially liberal by comparison”.

    Sorry Catherine, but a very big No, not so. A quick look on the internet will reveal his comments on Gay Men, on Asian Women…… and look up letter boxes just for starters.

  • Richard Cripps 7th Feb '22 - 4:43pm

    If we are nominating worst Prime Ministers according to the seriousness of their lying, in my lifetime I would Anthony Eden (Suez) and Tony Blair (Iraq) to Boris

  • He’s the worst in my lifetime because all the lying, greed and gaslighting by a Prime Minister devalues all politics.

    And Conservative voters, faced with the incontrovertible evidence of this rationalise their continuing tolerance and support by saying “Well, all politicians are the same. They’re just in it for themselves”. They’re not.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Feb '22 - 10:06pm

    A good piece and discussion.

    As for Johnson, not sure.

    As a personality with the talent for the role, he’s awful . As for his policies and their harm, I think he scores low, but not terribly.

    The colation was more wretched, as was latter Blair, Brown.

    Thatcher as a leader with a set of policies did harm, but some was intended to not be thus. She was apparently shocked that greed was so unleashed. She thought freedom would mean, in markets, better levels of efficiency and enterprising successs, greater amounts of philanthropy and generosity. The deeper reading of her character makes me think her a better person than some think.

    Blair was the most charismatic and able in decades. New Labour proof of his talent and drive. But he wrecked it.

    The worst was Chamberlain. If only for appeasment.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Feb '22 - 10:12pm

    I think Hugh Gaitskill, and Neil Kinnock, and Shirley Williams would have been excellent, as they all had beliefs, and ability and talent, pragmatism, sense, compassion!

  • Brad Barrows 8th Feb '22 - 7:13am

    @Andrew Toye
    I think it is clear that Thatcher lied to Parliament when she gave a justification for the sinking of the Belgrano that turned out to be completely false.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 8th Feb '22 - 8:18am

    David Raw, I only said Boris was socially liberal “by comparison” with Thatcher, who passed Section 28. But I suppose it’s true that if Thatcher had been Prime Minister today, she probably wouldn’t have passed Section 28 either.
    I did mention the “letter boxes” remark in my earlier comment. It was horrible and insensitive. But as I mentioned in my earlier comment, in the same article Boris went on to say that he was opposed to banning the burka, as several countries had done. Boris’s “letterbox” comment was indefensible, and may have incited racism. But the supposedly progressive governments that imposed a burka ban actually did far more harm to Muslim women, and the real point of Boris’s article was to oppose the burka ban. My point above was that Thatcher’s “swamped” speech was more deliberately harmful, more deliberately calculated to condone and empower racists, which is one of the reasons I would argue that Thatcher was a worse Prime Minister than Boris

  • Maurice Leeke 8th Feb '22 - 10:05am

    I am surprised no-one has mentioned “hostile environment “ yet. To tolerate, let alone promote, such a policy against our own citizens must, surely, put you close to top of the list.

  • John Marriott 8th Feb '22 - 10:06am

    Some interesting choices so far. Please allow me to comment on at least three of them. Firstly, Lord Avon, one of Chips Channon’s ‘Glamour boys’ in the 1930s, whom the Anglo/America gadfly clearly from his recently published unexpurgated diaries (one volume down, one to go and awaiting the publication of the third and final instalment) envied like hell. Talking of diaries I would recommend the ‘Suez’ diaries of Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh (1909-1994), who had been PPS to Lord Avon (Anthony Eden to the initiated) from 1954 to 1956. Eden’s misfortune was that, by the time Churchill finally relinquished the top job, the former’s best years and health were behind him. Following a botched gall bladder operation in the early 1950s and subsequent operations to repair the damage, Eden suffered bouts of ill health and was apparently living on amphetamines for most of the period in question. So, bad luck, old chap, you might say.

    Anyone who has read my comments on Blair’s first term will know what I am about to say. With a Commons majority to die for, he and Labour blew it. PR, a Bill of Rights, a Written Constitution, REAL devolution leading to a Federal U.K. – all might have been a reality by now. Instead we had the sucking up to Dubya and all the rest. However, compared to Johnson, he was a canny performer on the world’s stage and did, after all, win THREE elections.

    I have actually got some time for Lady Thatcher. Generally I hated her policies and, like Churchill, she clearly went on too long. One thing she did do, which Wilson and Callaghan failed to do and which Heath failed properly to prepare to do, was to take on what had become some ideologically led and over powerful Trades Unions. I’m sure that this will not go down well in some quarters and I would concede that she may have taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut; but many who experienced the 1970s at first hand, and, to some extent the 1980s as well, may grudgingly agree with me. It will be interesting to see what happens in her hometown of Grantham when the local council finally puts her statue on that plinth. I reckon, besides the barbed wire, they may need to stock up on detergent and paint remover as well.

  • George Thomas 8th Feb '22 - 10:54am

    If you subscribe to the opinion, and I do find it convincing, that David Cameron called for Brexit vote in order to settle the matter within the Conservative Party (and to stop leak of votes to political opponents to his right), then David Cameron must be up there. If you additionally think that austerity was unnecessary and vicious political opportunism after Cameron had called for less restrictions on banking sector while in opposition, well he does take some beating.

    Boris Johnson is probably a worse human but David Cameron must be so grateful that immediate successors have been so bad and don’t want to point fingers at their own party.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Feb '22 - 11:11am

    Not new but..
    “The spectacle of the man who used to claim to be a statesman grubbing for favours in hopes of cash is enough…….
    …Step back from the details and drink in the grand view of the former prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, successor to Gladstone and Churchill, hanging up the phone on a reporter asking him about the political favours he tried to call in to save his share options…..
    ……Why was Cameron ever risking the tattered remnants of his reputation for Greensill’s money? It’s not as if he needs the cash.”

  • Chris Moore 8th Feb '22 - 11:54am

    There is a recency bias in much of this conversation.

    Boris seems most awful because he’s palpable inescapable and now.

    Likewise several other comments on recent PMs seem to be picking on unfortunate minutiae taken to be symbolic of something greater. Such minutiae are forgotten about earlier PMs.

    But looking at sheer destructiveness, Boris can’t compete with Chamberlain, Eden, Blair.

  • Paul Barker 8th Feb '22 - 12:48pm

    As far as I know, Johnson is the first British PM to inject a Far-Right Conspiracy Theory into mainstream Politics. His attack on Starmer last week fitted neatly into The Qanon Conspiracy, with added appeal to Assange Fans. We saw one result yesterday with the mob attack on Starmer. One reason so many Tory MPs are so angry about Johnsons remarks are that they make violence against all MPs more likely.

    Like Trump, Johnson is poisoning Politics in general.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Feb '22 - 1:01pm

    @Chris Moore
    “But looking at sheer destructiveness, Boris can’t compete with Chamberlain, Eden, Blair.”

    I’d prefer to wait on that – we don’t know yet how Northern Ireland is going to work out.. or Ukraine. Or efforts at tackling climate change.

  • I disagreed utterly with the Iraq invasion under Blair. However, I also utterly disagreed with the removal of Gaddafi and the proposed actions in Syria.
    This party’s MPs (along with many Labour MPs), to their credit, opposed Iraq but, when in government, this party supported the two/three latter actions…

    As an aside on Blair’s action over Iraq; how many postwar PM’s would not have followed the USA’s military adventures? I can think of only one; Harold Wilson who kept me, and many of my generation, out of Vietnam..

  • Malcolm Todd 8th Feb '22 - 2:12pm

    Chris Moore is right about the recency bias; but then the whole idea of comparing Prime Ministers across eras, in vastly different circumstances and always from the distorting perspective of one’s own day, is a bit ridiculous.
    For what it’s worth (nothing, obviously), I suspect that Johnson will prove to be about as memorable as Bonar Law to future generations: a nullity, a pointless placeholder, a figure devoid of seriousness or importance.
    But here and now, I can’t wait to dance on his grave.

  • Barry Lofty 8th Feb '22 - 3:21pm

    Malcolm Todd, I am dusting off my dance shoes and joining you!

  • @ Malcolm Todd, “I suspect that Johnson will prove to be about as memorable as Bonar Law to future generations: a nullity, a pointless placeholder, a figure devoid of seriousness or importance”.

    Well, even if Bonar Law was any or all of those things, he had enough clout to finish off Lloyd George for good and all And, it can be legitimately claimed that Lloyd George’s helped to finish off the Liberal Party as a serious contender for power… and his version of truth (and other activities) was not that different to de Pfeffel.

    @Chris Moore, “But looking at sheer destructiveness, Boris can’t compete with Chamberlain, Eden, Blair”.

    Do you deny that Chamberlain bought time for Britain to re-arm ? Twelve months bought at Munich enabled the manufacture of Spitfires and Hurricanes. That’s the view of many serious historians.

  • Christopher Haigh 8th Feb '22 - 4:05pm

    From a Liberal Democrat perspective, ‘Dodgy Dave’ must be the worst

  • He is the worst since Lord North and that takes some beating.

  • Helen Dudden 9th Feb '22 - 8:08am

    We clearly have failings in our political system.

  • John Marriott 9th Feb '22 - 11:22am

    I’m really pleased that so many LDV contributors appear to have answered the call that I’m thinking of asking next; “Who is the most dangerous Tory MP?” Might I suggest Mr Steve Baker?

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