It is generally believed that the best candidates for the post of Prime Minister are those who have a lot of experience in top level politics. Ideally, this experience would include serving in the cabinet and, in particular, occupying one of the “great offices of state” – the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary.
Of the remaining candidates in the competition to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, two have held great positions in the state and two are significantly less experienced, instead trying to present themselves as clean-slate candidates. who are not so closely associated with Johnson’s government. Conservative Party members will soon be asked to decide which of these options is better as they vote for their new leader.
How does their respective experience compare with previous prime ministers? And does it matter?
On average, the 13 prime ministers who ruled Britain since 1955 had spent 147 months (over 12 years) working in a shadow cabinet or cabinet when they came to power.
Of these, eight had spent ten years at the top level. Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan served for nearly 25 years at the highest levels of opposition and government before becoming prime minister in 1976.
The least experienced was Boris Johnson, who had only 24 months as foreign secretary. However, he had previously served eight years as mayor of London, a position that may roughly correspond to a (non-great-office) cabinet position. John Major enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Thatcher governments, serving only 41 months in cabinet before becoming prime minister. Most of the more experienced prime ministers came into the role when their parties were already in government (ie mid-term) rather than winning the general election.
Joint cabinet and shadow cabinet experience of UK prime ministers since 1955
great office of state
Since 1955, eight of the 13 prime ministers have come to power in the middle of the government’s term after being elected by their parties. His experiences are therefore particularly relevant to candidates competing to become the next mid-term Conservative prime minister in September.
Anthony Eden and Gordon Brown had more than ten years experience of great offices, Callaghan more than seven and Theresa May six. Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Macmillan had some great-office experience but more in other departments.
The other two mid-term prime ministers, Major and Johnson, were significantly less experienced, although both held noble offices.
On average, mid-term prime ministers had more than seven years of cabinet experience – and five of those were in great offices. All eight mid-term prime ministers had previously held at least one noble position, with Major holding two and Callaghan all three.
Cabinet Experience of New Prime Ministers Since 1955
Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson came to power winning the general election from the opposition, although all three had cabinet experience. Only Tony Blair and David Cameron had no prior cabinet experience, as their respective parties ended up in opposition long after winning the general election. However, both had served as the Leader of the Opposition for several years.
What does this mean for hopeful leadership?
Some of the most experienced candidates – Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Grant Shapps – are already out of the current race to become Conservative leaders. With eight years in the cabinet, most recently as foreign secretary, Liz Truss is the most experienced of the remaining candidates. Rishi Sunak has three years of experience, mostly in the great-office role of chancellor. The feel profile of the truss resembles that of the Macmillan, while the eccentricity is similar to that of the Major.
Cabinet Experience of 2022 Conservative Leadership Contestants
Other candidates are less experienced. Penny Mordaunt has never served in a noble office, a brief time in her highest-ranked job in the Ministry of Defense. He is currently a junior minister. Cami Badenoch never served in the cabinet.
Governing parties prioritize competence over electability when choosing a new leader. Mid-term prime ministers have little time to get acquainted with the job. He should take quick decisions on which policies to change and whom to appoint in the cabinet. Experience can help with these decisions. But the Conservatives have already rejected some of the most experienced candidates on offer in 2022. The truce does not fit the general profile of the mid-term prime minister, Sunak partly and other candidates at all.
However, some of the most experienced post-war prime ministers were also some of the least successful and short-lived. Eden had more experience than anyone but saw his premiership destroyed by the Suez Crisis. Douglas-Home lasted 364 days before losing the election. Brown spent ten years as chancellor while he waited for the top job, but when it finally came, he had few innovative policies left. Callaghan is indelibly linked to a winter of discontent, while May’s premiership was defined by her failure to secure Brexit.
Therefore, past experience is not necessarily the same as controlling success. The highest-achieving prime ministers since 1955 are Thatcher and Blair – both representing breaks with the past in their respective parties and both were elected from the opposition before winning several elections.
The dilemma for conservatives is that truss and cynicism are known quantities, but may represent continuity at a time when the Tories are behind in elections. Mordount and Badenoche are broken in the past, but how will they perform in running a government?
If the past is anything to go by, conservatives may eventually opt for one of the more experienced candidates.