SIR ROBERT WALPOLE, a Whig, is regarded as the first Prime Minister. It is not possible to give absolute dates for Walpole’s ministry because he dominated parliament from about 1721 -1742 without always holding a senior appointment, but he is undoubtedly the longest serving British Prime Minister due to his great political management skills. He survived the accession of George II, who had been at odds with his father, because he was a close friend of the new Queen Caroline. Walpole is credited with safeguarding the development of the Hanoverian dynasty and the principles of the Glorious Revolution.
THOMAS PELHAM-HOLLES, DUKE OF NEWCASTLE and his brother HENRY PELHAM They were close protégées of Walpole who each became prime minister. Henry, the younger brother became PM in 1743. and held the office until his death in 1754. He continued the Walpole policies, but was renowned for his personal integrity which was remarkable in a venal age. Throughout his time in office his brother, the duke, had maintained support for him in the Whig party and continued to hold office as Secretary of State in charge of foreign policy. On his brother's death Thomas Duke of Newcastle succeeded him as PM and served for two periods. After losing office due to a disastrous beginning to the Seven Years war, Newcastle resumed office in 1757, but the guiding light of the administration was leader of the Commons William Pitt, supported by Newcastle's skilful party management and supervision of continental matters.
WILLIAM PITT THE ELDER, EARL OF CHATHAM, was prime minister from 30 July 1766 – 14 Oct 1768 but nearly all his greatest achievements were secured when he was the informal leader of the government from 1756 - 61. He was a brilliant orator and was admired for his financial probity. His leadership during the Seven Years War helped secure the victories which gained an empire and led to British dominance in world affairs. He argued it was unconstitutional to impose taxation upon American colonists, but he became crippled by physical and mental ill-health and collapsed in the House of Lords arguing against granting independence for the American colonies, who were being supported by France. He died a few days later at home in 1778.
LORD NORTH, EARL OF GUILFORD was prime minister for George III, with whom he had a friendly relationship, 1770 – 1782. His ministry passed the acts which led to the War of American Independence. He was aware that he was an unsuitable war leader and frequently offered to resign but the king dissuaded him. He was eventually forced out by political adversaries as the war drew to an end.
WILLIAM PITT THE YOUNGER became Tory prime minister at the age of 24 in 1783. He retained the office until 1801 but returned in 1804 and died in office in 1806 aged 46. In his early days in Parliament he supported making peace with the American colonists and liberal causes such as parliamentary reform. He was a friend of Wilberforce, the anti-slavery parliamentary spokesman, but on attaining power his first concern was to restore the public finances (he introduced Income Tax and simplified customs and excise duties). He shared the alarm and fear of revolutionary ideas from France which spread throughout the British ruling class in the 1790s and supported repressive measures including suspension of Habeas Corpus, but he felt compelled to resign when George III refused to accept Catholic emancipation as a companion piece to the Act of Union with Ireland. He was recalled to power but died in office, living long enough to see Napoleon’s triumphs at Ulm and Austerlitz and Nelson’s at Trafalgar.
SPENCER PERCEVAL was Tory prime minister from 1809 until his death on 11 May 1812 when he was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons by John Bellingham. To date, no other prime minister has been assassinated. Perceval helped his War Secretary, Lord Liverpool, fight off attempts to recall Arthur Wellesley’s expeditionary force from the Iberian Peninsula in 1810, thus enabling Wellesley, Lord Wellington, to drain the French resources in Spain before driving them out of the country in 1813.
ROBERT JENKINSON, EARL OF LIVERPOOL, Tory prime minister (8 June 1812 – 9 April 1827) for the entire Regency period and beyond, led a powerful team which ensured the political and financial support which brought military success for Wellesley in Spain and saw off the challenge from the United States in the War of 1812. In the difficult post-war years his government was vilified for allowing passage of the Corn Laws, which kept the price of bread high, and harsh repression of political expression such as the Luddite riots. However he spoke for the abolition of the Slave Trade and supported the repeal of the Combination Acts. He resigned when the cabinet expressed support for Catholic emancipation.
ARTHUR WELLESELEY, DUKE OF WELLINGTON, the national war hero, was Tory prime minister (22 Jan 1828 – 16 Nov 1830 and again briefly at the end of 1834) for short and relatively undistinguished periods of time. Despite his extremely conservative nature, Wellington’s administration passed the act giving Catholics political emancipation, despite public hostility. Wellington fought a duel with an opponent of the bill, Lord Winchelsea. Faced with mounting unpopularity the Duke resigned but he continued to serve in subordinate positions in Peel’s ministry. He received a State Funeral at St Pauls to celebrate his military contributions to the nation.
CHARLES, THE EARL GREY, Whig prime minister 22 Nov 1830 - 16 July 1834. This brief period saw two great landmarks in British history. The passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832 modestly increased the number of electors and corrected the abuse of rotten and pocket boroughs, by which many seats in the Commons were tightly controlled by a few wealthy patrons. The Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Empire was the final act in the long anti-slavery campaign started by Granville Sharp in 1772. Earl Grey tea is named after this man.
SIR ROBERT PEEL, prime minister 10 Dec 1834 – 8 April 1835 and 30 Aug 1841 – 29 June 1846, was born outside the aristocratic magic circle – his father was a wealthy northern textile manufacturer. Before becoming prime minister he had already achieved much in the field of politics; he reformed the criminal law, established the first metropolitan police force and he was also in the forefront of the burgeoning Free Trade movement. His first brief term of office achieved nothing. The second was beset by the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine and he sought Whig support to ensure the Corn Laws were repealed. This split the old Tory party and left the Peelite wing eventually to merge with liberal Whigs into the Liberal Party. For at least ten years there was confusion in the ranks of Parliament about true party beliefs.
LORD JOHN RUSSELL, EARL RUSSELL, became prime minister of a Whig administration after Peel 1846-1852 and he briefly led a disunited Liberal government 1865-6 after Palmerston's death. He helped write the 1832 Reform Bill, but is mostly remembered for his stormy relationship with Palmerston and ineffective management during the unfolding Irish famine disaster 1847-9. He served in a coalition government under the Peelite LORD ABERDEEN 1852-5, which fell when he resigned over issues arising from the Crimean War.
HENRY JOHN TEMPLE, LORD PALMERSTON was twice Liberal prime minister separated by a brief Conservative ministry (6 Feb 1855 – 20 Feb 1858 and 18 June 1859 – 29 Oct 1865). The second administration ending with his death at the age of 81. His consuming interest was foreign affairs with which he had been involved for many years in previous Whig administrations but, during his spell as Home Secretary he also oversaw some socially progressive legislation. He was distrusted by the queen and many political colleagues but the electorate admired his commitment to British superiority overseas and he was adept at maintaining a balance of power in Europe to Britain’s advantage. He was the last prime minister to die in office.
BENJAMIN DISRAELI, EARL OF BEACONSFIELD, was the leading minister in three short-lived administrations headed by the Earl of Derby. He briefly became prime minister in 1876 before leading a Conservative administration (20 Feb. 1874 – 23 Aril 1880). He led the country landowners who split with Peel over the Corn Laws and was instrumental in forming the new Conservative party, a remarkable achievement considering he was born a Jew and was a novelist. He was quite progressive in Home affairs and proved skilful in looking after British interests abroad. His rivalry with Gladstone and his friendly relationship with Queen Victoria is well-known.
WILLIAM EWART GLADSTONE was the longest serving of Victoria’s prime ministers, but he never enjoyed her affection. His political career began as a Peelite member of the Tory party. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in Liberal ministries, he introduced many of the Free Trade measures which underpinned British prosperity throughout most that period. In his later periods as prime minister he proposed a number of radical measures, especially Home Rule for Ireland, which split the Liberal party. He was prime minister on four separate occasions (3 Dec 1868 – 20 Feb 1874, 23 April 1880 – 23 June 1885, 1 Feb – 25 July 1886 and 15 Aug 1892 – 5 Mar 1894).
ROBERT ARTHUR TALBOT GASCOIGNE-CECIL, MARQUESS OF SALISBURY, served as Conservative prime minister late in Victoria’s reign (briefly in 1885, 25 July 1886 -15 Aug 1892, 25 June 1895 -12 July 1902) and was in power when she died. He was deeply conservative in temperament as well as politically and led the Unionist opposition to Irish Home Rule. However, his first ministry brought in an act which permitted working class housing to be improved with the aid of public money. In his early years he travelled the Empire, forming a good opinion of many of the peoples therein, except the South African Boers, with whom Britain went to war during his last premiership.
SIR HENRY CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN led the Liberals back to power with a landslide majority and formed a government (5th Dec 1905 – 3 April 1908). During his relatively brief spell as PM, some socially progressive legislation were passed. However, illness forced him to resign and he died 19 days later. His party went on to achieve notable radical changes under his successor.
HERBERT H. ASQUITH was the last prime minister to form a Liberal government (5 April 1908 - 5 Dec 1916). The ’People’s Budget’ of 1909 was bitterly opposed by the House of Lords. Although they eventually accepted the budget, the power of the Lords was curtailed by the Parliament Act of 1911. Asquith formed a coalition government after war broke out in 1914, but he proved an indecisive war leader and was eventually forced to retire.
DAVID LLOYD GEORGE, known as the Welsh Wizard, was a great orator and energetic social reformer. He became prime minister (5 Dec 1916 – 19 Oct 1922) of a coalition government and was regarded as an outstanding war-time minister and premier. The coalition won a massive majority in 1918, but his popularity waned with scandals attached to his name, especially rumours that he had sold honours and titles. When his Conservative partners left the coalition, he remained a controversial figure and the Liberal party, under his leadership, found much of its support ebbing away to the Labour and Conservative parties.
RAMSEY MACDONALD was the first Labour party prime minister. He led minority Governments (22 Jan - 4 Nov 1924 and 5 Jun 1929 - 1931). The economic challenges of the Great Depression caused him to form a coalition government with Conservative support (24 Aug 1931 -7 June 1935) and he was consequently expelled from the Labour party. However the coalition won an enormous mandate in the 1931 election and MacDonald battled increasing ill health to lead the government for four more years.
STANLEY BALDWIN became prime minister briefly (23 May 1923 – 16 Jan 1924) but resigned when he failed to gain an outright majority in the general election. He returned to power (4 Nov 1924 – 5 June 1929). His government faced the General Strike and passed an act for universal female suffrage. He joined MacDonald’s coalition in 1931, became P M once more (7 June 1935 – 28 May 1937) and and is chiefly remembered for having to deal with the abdication crisis.
NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN continued Baldwin’s policies. He will be remembered for the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 and his broadcast announcement that Britain was at war with Germany 3 Sept 1939. He failed to gain the confidence of the House of Commons regarding war policy and resigned after an expeditionary force was driven out of Norway by the Germans in 1940.
SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL, wartime prime minister (10 May 1940 - 26 July 1945) and again 26 Oct 1951 - 6 April 1955). His long and uneven political career reached its zenith with his warnings about Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the wartime speeches in which he inspired the nation to stand alone against Hitler. In 1951 he led the Conservative party to its first majority administration since 1924 - 1929 and, despite suffering a stroke, he held office until he was aged eighty. His over-riding interest was foreign policy but his peacetime government accepted the social reforms of Attlee’s administration, abolished the last of the rationing system, but struggled to redress the dire post-war economic situation.
CLEMENT ATTLEE, prime minister (26 July 1945 - 26 Oct 1951), led the Labour party to a landslide victory after the war. His administration will always be associated with policies to implement the social policies of the Beveridge Plan, such as the National Health Service. It ended the British Raj in India with a handover of power to nations on the subcontinent and introduced a nationalisation programme which brought Railways, Coal, Steel and other industries into government ownership. The administration always struggled with financial problems, devalued the pound and became split over introducing prescription charges in the NHS.
HAROLD MACMILLAN succeeded SIR ANTHONY EDEN, whose administration (1955 - 1957) ended due to Eden’s ill-health following the debacle of the Suez invasion. Macmillan was Conservative prime minister (10 Jan 1957 19 Oct 1963). He was known as Supermac and continued with the post-war mixed economy established by Attlee, but he also encouraged the growth of a consumer society to boost an aura of prosperity with low unemployment - hence his phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’. He continued with the dissolution of empire and rebuilt a special relationship with Kennedy’s USA. Towards the end of his time the Profumo affair rocked the government and he resigned in favour of the Earl of Home, who had to renounce his title and take a seat as SIR ALEC DOUGLAS-HOME in the House of Commons before he could accept the office of P M (1963 - 1964).
HAROLD WILSON, prime minister (16 Oct 1964 – 19 June 1970, 4 Mar 1974 – 5 April 1976), gained power with a promise to remake Britain in the ‘white-hot heat of the technological revolution’. The balance of payments became an increasing problem in his first period of office and the pound was again devalued in an attempt to overcome the problem. He came back to power with a small majority in the ‘who governs Britain’ election to face industrial relations problems and a worsening economy. He called the referendum which confirmed the UK as a member of the EEC. His government also introduced comprehensive education. His resignation was an unexpected shock.
EDWARD HEATH won a surprise election victory and became Conservative prime minister (19 June 1970 – 4 Mar 1974). After nursing the policy in previous Conservative administrations, he finally achieved the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market as it was known. He intended to bring in measures of economic de-regulation but was overwhelmed by an inflationary spiral and seriously bad industrial relations, ending with cuts in the supply of power and the imposition of a three day working week. His time as P M ended with failure to win the ‘who governs Britain’ election.
JAMES CALLAGHAN became P M following Wilson’s abrupt resignation and remained in power through the agency of the Lib-lab Pact with the Liberal party 5 April 1976 - 4 May 1979. Remembered mainly for putting the economy under the supervision of the World Monetary Fund and worsening industrial relations in the ‘winter of discontent’.
MARGARET THATCHER, first woman prime minister (4 May 1979 - 28 Nov 1990). She ended the post war consensus with monetarist and free market policies of deregulation, trades union reform, privatisation of nationalised industries and reform of practises in the City of London. Her ‘Thatcherite’ agenda brought her into conflict with ‘one nation’ Conservative colleagues, but after the Falklands War she won the party’s support, despite mounting unemployment and widespread closure of businesses which accompanied her economic policies. She earned admiration for her bravery when she addressed the party conference hours after narrowly avoiding death when the Grand Hotel at Brighton was blown up by the IRA in 1984, but formidable political opposition continued with the miners’ strike of 1984-5. She won three consecutive general elections and became a close ally of President Reagan. Known as ‘The Iron Lady’, she was widely regarded overseas as a major player in the downfall of the Soviet Empire. Her Bruges speech opposing the formation of a federal Europe and growing unpopularity of her ‘Poll Tax’ policy at home led to a party revolt and her resignation. She was afforded the honour of a semi-state funeral at St Paul’s cathedral on her death in 2013 but remained a divisive figure to the very end.
JOHN MAJOR, prime minister (28 Nov 1990 - 2 May 1997) became beset by problems caused by moves to federalise the EEC. His policy of tying the £ to the Deutchmark at an unfavourable exchange rate collapsed when it was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on ‘Black Wednesday’ 16 Sept 1992. This led to a period of UK economic growth, but the government became de-stabilised by Conservative eurosceptic opposition to the terms of the Maastricht treaty which brought the European Union (EU) into being, despite Major achieving opt-outs from the Currency Union and the Social Chapter. His cabinet escaped unscathed when the IRA fired a mortar bomb at Downing Street. However, following an IRA ceasefire, he began the Northern Ireland Peace Process which led to the Good Friday Agreement.
TONY BLAIR is, to date, Labour’s longest serving prime minister (2 May 1997 – 27 June 2007) winning three consecutive victories under the ‘New Labour’ emblem. His administration passed important constitutional changes including reform of the House of Lords (without solving the problem of how members were to be selected), the Belfast agreement which brought in a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland, a devolved parliament for Scotland and a devolved Welsh National Assembly. Many social changes were also enacted. Public expenditure was greatly increased, aided by so-called stealth taxes, increased borrowing and other, off-book, financing methods. Immigration numbers, including an influx of people from the new East European members of the EU, grew significantly during this period. Blair eventually came under fire from many in his party because of the way he presented to Parliament and the country the case for going to war with Iraq.
GORDON BROWN eventually became prime minister in 2007. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer throughout Blair's premiership and was acknowledged as his heir in waiting. Once he achieved power, he was confronted by the world-wide Economic Depression in 2007-8 which wrecked the economy and led to the partial nationalisation of the Bank of Scotland and other British banks. Brown belatedly signed the Lisbon Treaty which promoted ever closer union in the EU and he was defeated in the general election of 2010.
DAVID CAMERON became Conservative leader of a coalition government in partnership with the Liberal Democrats (11 May 2010 - 7 May 2015). The immediate task was to deal with the serious economic situation, which led to measures to reduce government borrowing, serious cuts in most public services and a large increase in student tuition fees. Interest rates fell to a record low of .5% for a record period of time and employment figures unexpectedly improved. A referendum in Scotland as to whether the country should become independent of the UK resulted in 55.3% rejecting the proposal. After an unexpected victory in the 2015 election, Cameron formed a Conservative government (7 May 2015 - 13 July 2016). Following a renegotiation of membership terms with Brussels, a referendum was held in June 1916 to decide whether the UK should remain in or out of the EU. A 52.8% majority voted in favour of leaving. Cameron promptly resigned and Mrs Theresa May formed a government.
THERESA MAY (13 July 2016 - 24 July 2019) began proceedings to negotiate UK withdrawal from the European Union in March 2017 and called an election in May with hopes of increasing her Conservative majority. However, her lack of leadership prowess and unexpectedly strong support for Labour under the left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbin returned a House of Commons in which she could only secure a majority with support from the Democratic Unionist Party. Her entire term of office was consumed by the attempt to reach agreement with the EC on the terms for British withdrawal. Brexit opponents in her own party strongly opposed the proposed agreement and the House of Commons defeated it three times. She finally resigned in May 2019 and was succeeded by Boris Johnson.
BORIS JOHNSON (24 July 2019 -), journalist and briefly a former foreign secretary, had been a leader in the Vote Leave campaign and, on taking office, immediately announced that he would take the UK out of the EC on the stipulated date of October 31st, with or without an agreed deal. Although parliament accepted the treaty he presented, he paused the bill and persuaded parliament to forgo the provisions of the fixed term Parliament Act. A December Election was held, which returned the Conservatives to power with a majority of 80. Brexit was finally achieved in January 2020, but almost immediately, the total efforts of the government were needed to fight the Covid 19 virus pandemic which first broke out in China in December 2019.