Book review: The Prime Ministers We Never Had: Success and Failure from Butler to Corbyn, by Steve Richards

Steve Richards knows his stuff.

His previous book, The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson focused on the ten most recent British occupants of 10 Downing Street.

In his new book, even the list of subjects chosen is potentially contentious as Richards has specifically chosen to focus on the ten people who he feels came closest to becoming Prime Minister in the last sixty or so years without ever quite achieving it.

The list actually includes eleven people, not ten, as Richards has judged the two Milibands to be equally worthy of a place here and are both dealt with in one chapter.

The figures included are:

Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine,  Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, David and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

It is a good selection. Of the eleven, only three were ever party leader. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband were both cruelly denied power after losing General Elections (in 1992 and 2015) which most opinion polls and most people expected them to emerge from as Prime Minister, as at the very least, the leaders of a Hung Parliament. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn caused a major upset by wiping out Theresa May’s majority in an unnecessary election which she had expected to win by a landslide. For a short period, Corbyn seemed achingly close to power. But his last two years as Opposition leader were disastrous and in 2019, he lost far more heavily to the Tories, by then under their new leader, Boris Johnson.

Two others on the list, Rab Butler and Michael Heseltine came close to becoming leader while their parties were in power.  But while supremely well-qualified for the position of PM on paper, Butler lacked the qualities necessary to secure the position in practice. He lost out three times in 1955, 1957 and 1963. He was ultimately outmanoeuvred by the far more ruthless Harold Macmillan. Amongst other things, his speech to the 1963 Party Conference was much too dull to excite the Tory Faithful.

Michael Heseltine’s party conference speeches, in contrast, were never dull but he faced a near impossible challenge in 1990 in attempting to both remove Margaret Thatcher from office and replace her. He succeeded in the first but failed to achieve the latter despite remaining a potential leadership contender until after the Tories lost power in 1997. Although he wisely avoids going down the counter-factual history route, Richards does speculate that as Prime Minister, Heseltine may well have fundamentally changed Britain forever. Alas, we will never know.

Ultimately, all eleven of the figures featured here failed to win the premiership for different reasons. Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Ken Clarke all attempted to swim against the opposing tides then prevailing within their own parties. Onetime heir to the Thatcherite legacy, Michael Portillo, meanwhile, was forced into such a fundamental rethink of his values by his 1997 defeat, that he seemed to have lost all his enthusiasm for leadership by the time he was finally able to contest it in 2001. Many of his original supporters by then had their doubts as to whether they still wanted him to be leader too.

Richards’ list is almost as interesting for those it misses off as for those it includes. From the outset, his position is clear: in this book, he is only interested in the reasons why people didn’t become PM. He thus wastes no time on the tragic cases of Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod or John Smith, all of whom lost any chance they might have had simply as a result of their sadly premature deaths. He also wastes no time on no-hopers. Whatever qualities they might have had, nobody ever expected Michael Foot or William Hague to make the jump from Opposition leader to Downing Street, least of all the men themselves.

I am surprised by Reginald Maudling’s exclusion from the list, however. Whatever his flaws, he was widely expected to beat Edward Heath to the Tory leadership in 1965 and from there may well have led the Tories back into power as Heath himself somehow managed to do. Richards also (perhaps after some hesitation) rejects Tony Benn from the list arguing:

“Benn almost qualifies as a prime minister we never had but fails to do so because, unlike Corbyn, he was never leader of the Opposition and he never had a credible chance of becoming prime minister while Labour was in government.”

This is fair enough but it does make Barbara Castle’s inclusion as one of the ten seem a bit conspicuous. She never after all, even stood for party leader. Yet it arguably doesn’t matter. Castle was a colourful and interesting character. She might have become leader and her inclusion proves a useful entry point for discussing other female politicians of the time such as Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher. Richards’ writing is consistently engaging and well-argued. And rest assured, the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot certainly get lots of coverage here anyway.

It is a sad book, in some ways. Neil Kinnock possessed many brilliant qualities and achieved much but his nine years as Opposition leader were generally agonising. He arguably saved the Labour Party only to find that he himself had become their biggest obstacle to it ever winning power. Both Milibands were hugely talented too but ultimately found their own ambitions effectively cancelled each other out with disastrous consequences for both them and their family. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who Richards reliably assures us is almost completely lacking in any personal vanity at all ended up finding himself widely labelled as narcissistic.

It is an excellent book nevertheless confirming Steve Richards’ position as one of our finest political writers. Perhaps Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer should grab a copy and take note if only to help ensure they don’t find themselves in any future editions?

Published by: Atlantic Books.

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