Prime Ministers' legacies

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

Winston Churchill famously said that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it.

Not a bad policy for past Prime Ministers. Write your own political obituary.

David Cameron has been writing his memoirs, out soon. Tony Blair's were called "A Journey."

Then there were those with a grey, bland title, "The Autobiography." That's a clue to who wrote them, by the way.

Margaret Thatcher's were "The Downing Street Years" and Jim Callaghan's were called "Time & Chance."

Theresa May? We'll have to wait and see.

"Brexit Battles," maybe. "My Deal Or No Deal," perhaps. "The May Way," even.

Like any Prime Minister, she will have had one eye on her legacy.

Which brings us to another Prime Ministerial quote, attributed rather dubiously to Harold Macmillan.


He is supposed to have replied "Events, dear boy, events," when asked by a journalist what was most likely to blow governments off course.

Theresa May certainly had plenty of events to blow her off course.

Her entire term of office was defined by Brexit. She was given the keys to Number 10 tasked by her party with delivering on the Brexit referendum result while keeping the Tories together.

Even during her time in Downing Street, the juries were returning their verdicts, with some ready to describe her as one of the worst Prime Ministers ever, which does beg the question of how a different Prime Minister would have fared if dealt the same set of uniquely difficult cards.


How does she rate against other post-war Prime Ministers? Let's have a look...


DAVID CAMERON (Conservative, 2010 to 2016)

Posh and smooth-talking in the mould of Tony Blair, he forged a coalition in 2010 which destroyed the Liberal Democrats, and scored an outright majority in 2015 in the face of predictions of a hung Parliament. Difficult to pin down what he stood for, with vague policies like the "Big Society." A gambler who lost with the Brexit referendum.

Legacy verdict: A bolter who broke things and then made a sharp exit – not just with Brexit, but with his Libyan military vanity project which sparked today's enduring rift with Russia, which felt tricked by the West.


GORDON BROWN (Labour, 2007 to 2010)

Kept waiting by Tony Blair and then overwhelmed by events as the financial crash took hold. A Prime Minister not in control who had bad luck, but created some of it for himself, and whose somewhat dour public persona didn't help.

Legacy verdict: No more boom and bust, he promised – and was only half right.


TONY BLAIR (Labour, 1997 to 2007)

Great on television, and a brilliant performer in the Commons, he scored a record three consecutive general election triumphs for Labour and was the party's longest-serving PM. A master of spin, he threw in his lot with President Bush after the 2001 terrorist attacks by taking part in wars in Afghanistan and, most controversially, Iraq, on the false premise that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Legacy verdict: A politician whose name has become synonymous with breaching public trust.


JOHN MAJOR (Conservative, 1990 to 1997)

Mended fences in a Conservative Party convulsed by the poll tax, but then turned Downing Street into Tantrum Towers as his party convulsed over something different – guess what – Europe. Stamped his foot, used the b-word to describe colleagues, called for Back to Basics morals but later turned out to have had a four-year affair with Eggwina. Tories became seen as the sleaze party.

Legacy verdict: Started the process which led to the Good Friday Agreement.


MARGARET THATCHER (Conservative, 1979 to 1990)

Destroyed the prevailing political consensus with her policies of monetarism, lower income tax, home ownership, and bashing the unions. Early 1980s marked by high unemployment, devastation of traditional industries, and the miners' strike. Introduced the poll tax which caused riots.

Legacy verdict: Changed the political landscape, forced an unelectable Labour Party to reinvent itself, transformed Britain's reputation abroad, particularly with America, and able to "do business with" Gorbachev – but also created division and polarisation at home.


JAMES CALLAGHAN (Labour, 1976 to 1979)

Came to office after the surprise departure of Harold Wilson and inherited a high inflation economy riven by industrial strife, and sought the co-operation of the unions through public sector pay restrictions. Somehow held the ring for three years despite being a minority government.

Legacy verdict: Remembered chiefly for the Winter of Discontent of 1979, and also for something he never actually said: "Crisis? What crisis?" The last British Prime Minister to have fought in the Second World War.


HAROLD WILSON (Labour, 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976)

A clever political tactician whose 1970s period in office was an object lesson in how to play your political cards when dealt a difficult hand – including a minority government which only improved into a tiny Commons majority, demanding unions, and even a party split on Europe which he overcame by playing the trump of a referendum.

Legacy verdict: His referendum sealed Britain's place in the Common Market for over 40 years.


TED HEATH (Conservative, 1970 to 1974)

Unexpected winner of the 1970 general election, his term was characterised by creating petards for himself by which he was then hoist. Became spectacularly unstuck against a background of soaring oil prices and industrial strife with power cuts and a three-day week culminating in the miners' strike which toppled him.

Legacy: Took Britain into the Common Market, as it was then, in 1973.


ALEC DOUGLAS-HOME (Conservative, 1963 to 1964)

A good one for pub quizzes, as he only served 363 days, the second shortest premiership of the 20th century.

Legacy verdict: Loyal if unspectacular service to party and country.


HAROLD MACMILLAN (Conservative, 1957 to 1963)

Forever associated with his (mis)quote: "You've never had it so good." Under him living standards and prosperity increased, and Britain's international reputation was restored after the debacle of the Suez Crisis. Ruthless in disposing of political enemies.

Legacy verdict: A statesman who really did take Britain to better days.


ANTHONY EDEN (Conservative, 1955 to 1957)

The Gordon Brown of his era in that he was kept waiting years for his chance to take the reins, and then when he did he was derailed by events outside his control. Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 led to an Anglo-French invasion which was condemned and led to a rift with the United States, and humiliation for Britain.

Legacy verdict: His reputation never recovered from the Suez operation, which involved a secret British-French-Israeli conspiracy about which Eden lied to Parliament.


WINSTON CHURCHILL (Conservative, 1940 to 1945 and 1951 to 1955)

When he became Prime Minister in 1940 he felt as if his entire life had been a preparation for that moment. A leader and a figurehead during Britain's Finest Hour. Less well suited as peacetime Prime Minister.

Legacy verdict: A national and international legend who inspired the free world in its fight against Fascism.


CLEMENT ATTLEE (Labour, 1945 to 1951)

A quiet Labour giant whose post-war agenda of nationalisation, creation of the NHS, improved welfare, and mass housebuilding changed the political landscape as fundamentally as Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s.

Legacy verdict: A progressive, radical agenda, fully implemented. Arguably the most successful British Prime Minister ever.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.


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