Seldon dwells on the superior longevity of German chancellors, but what about the French? They have recently struggled to find a president that they like enough to re-elect. Both François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy were ejected from the Élysée palace after just one term. Emmanuel Macron, who faces an election next year, may suffer the same fate. If you think British politics is a treacherous game, how about the Australian snakepit? All four of Scott Morrison’s immediate predecessors as prime minister, two Liberal and two Labor, were putsched out by their own parties. The carnage in Canberra has been so gory that some emergency workers have reportedly stopped asking patients to name the prime minister, saying it was no longer a reliable indicator of mental health.
It opens with a flourish: an imagined conversation between Johnson and Robert Walpole, the first prime minister, from 1721-42. “I nearly died in my first year too,” Walpole tells his fellow Etonian over a glass of Château Lafite. “Carteret — bastard! — was priming himself to take over.” Every era has its lurking pretender, be it a Lord Carteret or Heseltine or Sunak. Other echoes: in Walpole’s first year the Great Plague of Marseille caused a panic when it threatened to spread to England; and although there was no European Union in those days, Walpole had to deal with unreconciled Jacobites.
This ambitious book by a major political biographer marks the 300th anniversary of the office of British prime minister. Seldon draws on hundreds of original interviews to compare with wit the jobs of the first and 55th men in office (though three centuries separate them, Robert Walpole and Boris Johnson boarded in the same chambers at Eton). He notes that while Britain has had female monarchs for 45 per cent of the past 300 years, it has had a female prime minister for less than 5 per cent of that time, and examines how the roles of monarch, foreign secretary and chancellor of the Exchequer have affected the evolution of the office.