If Boris Johnson is to be believed – and obviously he wouldn’t lie about anything – Covid-19 nearly killed him. There are no modern precedents that could be followed after the death of a British Prime Minister. Nor is there a comprehensive and detailed guide setting out who should do what and to whom and when if a hung Parliament is returned – as one was at two of the last four elections. Again, if a governing party wants, or has, to replace its leader, as befell three of the last four Prime Ministers, what exactly are the political and constitutional rules? Indeed, why is the successor’s election by at most a few tens of thousands of party members all the mandate that the Government needs to continue as though nothing had happened? And (please suspend disbelief for a moment) if Labour had won a General Election under Jeremy Corbyn, and yet he had still lacked the support of many of his own MPs, he would not have had the confidence of the House of Commons. Then what? When any and many more of such things happen British citizens can do little more than rely on experts and commentators as the high priests of the mysteries to share their understandings.
Such questions and many others concerning the transfer of power in Britain led me a few years ago to start writing Choosing a Prime Minister (OUP, July 2020). I strongly believe that such uncertainties should, so far as possible, be resolved. Publication was delayed by what Harold Macmillan so rightly said made governing difficult, “events”. After Theresa May’s catastrophic decision, at least for the Conservatives, to have an early election in 2017 it was clear that her days in Number 10 were numbered. Bad luck and her continued bad judgements meant that her “colleagues” would ditch her at some point. Slowly, so slowly, her political power drained away. Her amazing resilience and her sense of duty absorbed blow after blow: it was almost as painful to watch as for her to endure. Brexit negotiations dragged on and on. A record number of her Ministers at various points resigned. She was reduced to pleading with her party to give her just a bit more time. It would have been premature for me to have published until the inevitable change of tenant of Number 10 Downing Street had taken place.
Even as I wrote the book I realised that my goal of helping both interested citizens and constitutional scholars with these matters wasn’t going to be wholly successful. It wouldn’t be enough to produce a few hundred pages of text containing all the relevant constitutional “rules” on every aspect of changes in the premiership. There would still be too much detail and too many rules and exceptions to rules that would have to be understood and absorbed. It dawned on me that what might help would be some kind of codification, drawn from all the existing law (not much of that), conventions, practices, precedents, historical events, histories, biographies, and even political autobiographies (care being needed there because they are often, surprisingly enough, self-serving). And so at the end of my work I produced a Draft Code on Choosing a Prime Minister. It has forty-nine points (yes, I know that Woodrow Wilson got by with only Fourteen Points), coherently drawn together, and written in clear English.
But other than to spread knowledge, which is always a good in itself, won’t this volume just gather dust on the shelves for years until much nearer the next election? After all, as Dick Tuck (of whom everyone should have heard) pithily put it after failing to be elected, “The people have spoken. The bastards.” And the British people have spoken, just last December, and gave Johnson a thumping majority. All that was required of each new Minister was a blood-oath of loyalty to the leader. Despite that surely the Conservative Government has years ahead of it. And yet, and yet. Of the twenty-four Prime Ministers since 1902, which is the starting date for the book, fourteen were forced to quit after blunders, or coups, or through illness. They left office without any kicking from the electorate. That’s some 58% of premiers who were felled before, sometimes well before, an election. Perhaps that figure should be in a frame opposite the Prime Minister’s chair in the Cabinet Room. It is a surprising statistic, and provided a further motive for writing the book.
I much enjoyed reading for, thinking about, and drafting this volume. A small advantage that I have is that, being now in very late middle age, I actually lived through several of the constitutional and political events that appear in it. My first-ever political memory was of building Meccano while two ancient aunts nattered away. One said that she didn’t have anything like the confidence in the young man who had just become Prime Minister as she had had in his predecessor. The young man in question was the almost sixty-year-old Anthony Eden, who had just taken over – at last – from the eighty-year-old Winston Churchill. Much later I read that on the eve of that transfer of power the great man had declaimed to his Private Secretary that “I don’t think Anthony can do it.” Given the Suez debacle some eighteen months later, he was to be proved to be right. I also, for example, remember during the 1964 general election campaign listening to Sir Alec Douglas-Home defending his record as Prime Minister. He did so in an open-air carpark, with anyone at all welcome, and with no obvious security with him. Who could not pine for such safer days?
If you are kind enough to read this book, and if – when – you notice a mistake, or something with which you disagree, do please get in touch (Rodney.Brazier@manchester.ac.uk).
Rodney Brazier, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Manchester.
(Suggested citation: R. Brazier, ‘Change of Prime Minister, anyone?’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (1st July 2020) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))