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The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the leader of the Government, but not the head of state – that is the monarch. Prime Ministers are not directly elected in the UK, but are generally leaders of whichever political party has the most seats in the House of Commons. After a general election, the monarch will call upon the leader of the largest party to form the Government, but the holder of the office of prime minister can change mid-term if the political party chooses a new leader for any reason. The Prime Minister chooses the other members of the Government- eg Foreign Secretary etc. The PM has had a London residence and offices close to Parliament at 10 Downing Street since 1735. S/he also has an official country residence, Chequers, in Buckinghamshire. This is a 16th century mansion and estate gifted to the nation in 1917 for the use of the Prime Minister.
The full title for the Prime Minister is First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Civil Service and Prime Minister. The office of Prime Minister is relatively recent. It mostly became entrenched during the 20th century, but is generally traced back to the 18th, when the monarch needed someone to represent royal interests in the increasingly dominant House of Commons. So the term ‘prime minister’ was originally somewhat abusive, with implications of corruption attached to it. The office as we know it was more or less in place by the mid-19th century. ‘Questions to the Prime Minister’, forerunner of today’s ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’, began in 1881. It is generally accepted that the first ‘Prime Minister’ was Robert Walpole.
Political parties began as informal factions which represented particular interests. The predecessors of two of our modern political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, were (respectively) the ‘Tory’ or ‘Whig’ groupings of the 17th/18th centuries, which were extensions of lines drawn during the Civil War of the 1640s. The Tories were broadly royalist and Whigs generally protestant or anti-Catholic parliamentarians. Both names were originally abusive terms. ‘Tory’ is said to derive from an Irish term for a bunch of Catholic outlaws, toruigh; ‘Whig’ possibly comes from a Scottish term, whiggam-more, meaning ‘pack-saddle thieves’. The Labour Party grew out of the trade union and socialist movements of the 19th century and was founded in 1900.
Below is a bit about Britain’s more recent Prime Ministers, in reverse chronological order. Click on a heading for more information.
2019 – date Boris Johnson Conservative
Born: 19 June 1964 in New York, USA.
Background: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Classics. He is an ex-journalist, served as Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, was Member of Parliament for Henley from 2001 to 2008 and has been Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since 2015. He was appointed Foreign Secretary by Theresa May, but resigned following differences over the UK’s departure from the European Union. Johnson became Prime Minister on 24 July 2019, having won the election to become leader of the Conservative Party following Theresa May’s resignation in 2019, winning a significant majority over main rival Jeremy Hunt. He renegotiated the UK’s departure from the EU, which had been re-set to 31 October, but lost the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists and was forced to call for a general election, which was eventually approved by Parliament on 29 October. At the general election on 12 December, the Conservatives won a landslide overall majority of 80 seats in Parliament.
Famous for: Introducing ‘Boris Bikes’ in London when mayor. Being highly intelligent, charismatic, bad hair, amusing but gaffe-prone and championing the cause of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union – ‘BREXIT’. A so-called ‘Marmite politician’ – one who is widely adored or derided.
2016 – 2019 Theresa May Conservative
Born: 1 October 1956 in Eastbourne, East Sussex.
Background: Theresa Mary May (née Brasier) grew up in Oxfordshire and read geography at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She worked in the financial sector before becoming Member of Parliament for Maidenhead in 1997 and was Home Secretary under David Cameron. She became Prime Minister following David Cameron’s resignation in 2016 and called an election in 2017. Unfortunately, the electorate did not entirely buy her ‘strong and stable’ tagline and she was returned with a significantly reduced majority, forcing a reliance on a minority party, the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. This, together with deep divisions of opinion in the Conservative Party, greatly hampered her ability to achieve much. Parliament repeatedly defeated the departure deal she had negotiated with the EU and in 2019 she announced her decision to resign as Prime Minister, stepping down on 7 June.
Famous for: Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister was dominated by the issue of ‘BREXIT’ – the UK’s departure from the European Union, which she failed to implement.
2015 – 2016 David Cameron Conservative
Born: 9 October 1966 in Marylebone, London.
Background: David William Donald Cameron attended Eton and read philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Brasenose College, Oxford. He worked for the Conservative Party from 1988, was Member of Parliament for Witney from 2001 to 2016 and became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005.
Famous for: Being Prime Minister of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, seeking to reduce the deficit in government finances by austerity measures, introducing a referendum on Scottish independence (2014) and then a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). When the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, against his recommendation, Cameron resigned as Prime Minister.
2010 – 2015 David Cameron Conservative-Liberal Coalition
See previous entry.
2007 – 2010 Gordon Brown Labour
Born: 20 February 1951 in Giffnock, Renfrewshire, Scotland.
Background: James Gordon Brown was brought up in Kirkaldy and read history at the University of Edinburgh. Before becoming Member of Parliament for Dunfermline East in 1983, he had been a TV journalist and college lecturer. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 until 2007, when he became Prime Minister following Tony Blair’s resignation.
Famous for: Being the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer in modern times, as UK Prime Minister leading Britain through the global economic crisis that struck in 2008, and playing a key role in maintaining the union between England and Scotland during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. When Prime Minister, the Climate Change Act of 2008 set a target for the year 2050 for the reduction of targeted greenhouse gas emissions and the Counter-Terrorism Act in the same year increased government powers to gather and share personal information.
1997 – 2007 Tony Blair Labour
Born: 6 May 1953 in Edinburgh.
Background: Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was brought up in Adelaide, Australia, and Durham, England. He attended Fettes College in Edinburgh and read law at St John’s College, Oxford. He was a barrister before becoming Member of Parliament for Sedgefield from 1983 to 2007. Blair became leader of the Labour Party after the sudden death of John Smith in 1994.
Famous for: Moving the Labour Party to the political centre-right and leading it to three election victories, in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Introducing the National Minimum Wage, Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts. Holding referenda in Scotland and Wales over devolved government resulted in establishing a new Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales. One of Blair’s biggest achievements was being instrumental in the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, Blair allied with US President Bush to support US-sponsored invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The latter was controversial. The regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was unpleasant, but secular and nothing to do with Islamic terrorism. Moreover, the invasion was justified by the mistaken belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Nor was there any plan of what to do after the inevitable success of the invasion; thousands died in the subsequent upheaval. Blair’s legacy is often seen as the man who helped cause, and lead the UK into, an unnecessary war.
1990 – 1997 John Major Conservative
Born: 29 March 1943, St Helier, Carshalton, Surrey.
Background: John Major grew up in Brixton and, unlike most recent prime ministers, he left school at 16 and did not attend university. He was active in local south London politics from an early age and became Member of Parliament for Huntingdonshire in 1979. He rose rapidly and, as Prime Minister Thatcher ran out of ministerial options toward the end of her premiership, she appointed Major Foreign Secretary in 1989 and Chancellor of the Exchequer soon afterwards. He became Prime Minister following Margaret Thatcher’s reluctant departure in 1990, winning a General Election in his own right in 1992.
Famous for: Having an affair with fellow Conservative, Edwina Currie. Leading the UK’s participation in the First Gulf War, surviving an IRA mortar attack on Number 10 during a Cabinet meeting and cancelling the Community Charge, the widely unpopular, ‘poll tax’, introduced by his predecessor. Major’s administration was, possibly unfairly, mired with accusations of ‘sleaze’ – poor moral behaviour – and conflict within the Conservative government over Europe. John Major initiated the work that culminated in the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
1979 – 1990 Margaret Thatcher Conservative
Born: 13 October 1925, Grantham, Lincolnshire. Died: 8 April 2013, Ritz Hotel, London. Buried: Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London.
Background: Margaret HildaThatcher (née Roberts) had a fairly strict Methodist upbringing in Grantham, hugely influenced by her father. She attended the local grammar school and then read chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford before training as a barrister. She was elected Member of Parliament for Finchley in 1959, was Education Secretary under Ted Heath in 1970 and then, surprising many, successfully stood against him for the party leadership in 1975. In 1979, the Conservatives won the General Election and Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister. She went on to win two more elections, in 1983 and 1987.
Famous for: Being known as the Iron Lady and dividing opinion, even now. Reform of the trades unions. Pursuing a radical monetarist policy and reducing the role of central government, initially resulting in increased unemployment and contributing to inner-city riots. The successful war to re-take the Falkland Islands from Argentina. Deregulation, privatisation and giving local authority tenants the right to buy their homes. A tough approach that, ultimately, improved the economy. Her status as a world leader, friendship with US President Ronald Reagan and contribution to the ending of the Cold War. Almost constantly being at odds with, albeit a supporter of, the European Union.
1976 – 1979 James Callaghan Labour
Born: 27 March 1912 , Copnor, Portsmouth, Hampshire. Died: 26 March 2005, Ringmer, East Sussex. Buried: Ashes scattered at the base of the Peter Pan statue outside the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London.
Background: Leonard James Callaghan James Callaghan grew up in difficult financial circumstances, largely due to his father’s early death. He attended Portsmouth’s Northern Grammar School, but was unable to afford university and joined the Civil Service, becoming a tax inspector and trade union official. He served in the Royal Navy during World War Two, leaving with the rank of Lieutenant and was elected Member of Parliament for Cardiff South in 1945. Harold Wilson appointed Callaghan Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and (in his second administration) Foreign Secretary. He became leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister in 1976, following Harold Wilson’s sudden resignation.
Famous for: Nicknamed ‘Sunny Jim’ in the press, Callaghan was the only 20th century British Prime Minister to have held all 4 major offices of state: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. Callaghan’s government had no overall majority in the House of Commons and had to rely on the support of, first, the Liberal Party and then the Scottish Nationalists. Britain’s economy was in a dire state in the 1970s, with high inflation (17% in 1976) and appalling industrial relations. The Government was forced to ask the International Monetary Fund for a loan and impose public sector wage restrictions in an effort to bring down inflation. Callaghan will be forever (unfairly) associated with this and the wave of strikes in 1978-79, known as ‘the Winter of Discontent’. The government narrowly lost a motion of no confidence, by one vote, resulting in a general election that was won by the Conservatives.
Here is a full list of Britain’s Prime Ministers:
|1721 – 1742||Sir Robert Walpole||Whig|
|1742 – 1743||Earl of Wilmington||Whig|
|1743 – 1754||Henry Pelham||Whig|
|1754 – 1756||Duke of Newcastle||Whig|
|1756 – 1757||Duke of Devonshire||Whig|
|1757 – 1762||Duke of Newcastle||Whig|
|1762 – 1763||Earl of Bute||Tory|
|1763 – 1765||George Grenville||Whig|
|1765 – 1766||Marquess of Rockingham||Whig|
|1766 – 1768||Earl of Chatham||Whig|
|1768 – 1770||Duke of Grafton||Whig|
|1770 – 1782||Lord North||Tory|
|1782||Marquess of Rockingham||Whig|
|1782 – 1783||Earl of Shelburne||Whig|
|1783||Duke of Portland||Whig|
|1783 – 1801||William Pitt||Tory|
|1801 – 1804||Henry Addington||Tory|
|1804 – 1806||William Pitt||Tory|
|1806 – 1807||Lord Grenville||Whig|
|1807 – 1809||Duke of Portland||Whig|
|1809 – 1812||Spencer Perceval||Tory|
|1812 – 1827||Earl of Liverpool||Tory|
|1827 – 1828||Viscount Goderich||Tory|
|1828 – 1830||Duke of Wellington||Tory|
|1830 – 1834||Earl Grey||Whig|
|1834||Duke of Wellington||Tory|
|1834 – 1835||Sir Robert Peel||Tory|
|1835 – 1841||Lord Melbourne||Whig|
|1841 – 1846||Sir Robert Peel||Tory|
|1846 – 1852||Lord John Russell||Liberal|
|1852||Earl of Derby||Conservative|
|1852 – 1855||Earl of Aberdeen||Tory|
|1855 – 1858||Viscount Palmerston||Liberal|
|1858 – 1859||Earl of Derby||Conservative|
|1859 – 1865||Viscount Palmerston||Liberal|
|1865 – 1866||Lord John Russell||Liberal|
|1866 – 1868||Earl of Derby||Conservative|
|1868 – 1874||William Ewart Gladstone||Liberal|
|1874 – 1880||Benjamin Disraeli||Conservative|
|1880 – 1885||William Ewart Gladstone||Liberal|
|1885 – 1886||Marquess of Salisbury||Conservative|
|1886||William Ewart Gladstone||Liberal|
|1886 – 1892||Marquess of Salisbury||Conservative|
|1892 – 1894||William Ewart Gladstone||Liberal|
|1894 – 1895||Earl of Rosebery||Liberal|
|1895 – 1902||Marquess of Salisbury||Conservative|
|1902 – 1905||Arthur James Balfour||Conservative|
|1905 – 1908||Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman||Liberal|
|1908 – 1916||Herbert Henry Asquith||Liberal|
|1916 – 1922||David Lloyd George||Liberal|
|1922 – 1923||Andrew Bonar Law||Conservative|
|1923 – 1924||Stanley Baldwin||Conservative|
|1924 – 1929||Stanley Baldwin||Conservative|
|1929 – 1935||Ramsay MacDonald||Labour
(National Labour from 1931)
|1935 – 1937||Stanley Baldwin||Conservative|
|1937 – 1940||Neville Chamberlain||National Government|
|1940 – 1945||Winston Spencer Churchill||Wartime Coalition|
|1945 – 1951||Clement Atlee||Labour|
|1951 – 1955||Winston Spencer Churchill||Conservative|
|1955 – 1957||Anthony Eden||Conservative|
|1957 – 1963||Harold Macmillan||Conservative|
|1963 – 1964||Sir Alec Douglas-Home||Conservative|
|1964 – 1970||Harold Wilson||Labour|
|1970 – 1974||Edward Heath||Conservative|
|1974 – 1976||Harold Wilson||Labour|
|1976 – 1979||James Callaghan||Labour|
|1979 – 1990||Margaret Hilda Thatcher||Conservative|
|1990 – 1997||John Major||Conservative|
|1997 – 2007||Tony Blair||Labour|
|2007 – 2010||Gordon Brown||Labour|
|2010 – 2015||David Cameron||Conservative-Liberal Coalition|
|2015 – 2016||David Cameron||Conservative|
|2016 – 2019||Theresa May||Conservative|
|2019 –||Boris Johnson||Conservative|