I see my function as a political broadcaster and writer to be analogous to a sports reporter. Nobody cares what team Henry Winter supports but that does not stop him pointing out when one team is playing badly or another has increasing strengths. Nobody cares what side, if any, a ball-by-ball commentator may secretly support or not.
For me the same applies to political coverage. I cherish the rules, policed by Ofcom, enjoining political broadcasters to due impartiality, even as those rules are eroded by the sprawl of new radio, television and online news outlets.
I have spent so long trying to make sense of the shape of the political wood that I have long ago given up any affections for particular trees within it. I do not vote and in my experience, personal feelings about a politician, whether like or dislike, have scant relevance to whether they are any good in their role.
In this spirit of fair and balanced comment I tweeted: “Worst. Prime Minister. Ever.” immediately after Boris Johnson stood down officially as Prime Minister. I do not regret my comment. In spite of his character flaws, which I had discussed at length in the columns of The Sunday Times beforehand, I was not surprised that Johnson became Prime Minister nor that he prematurely blew up a substantial parliamentary majority and a three year administration which achieved next to nothing of benefit to the British people.
Subsequent events and conversations with all sorts of people made me wonder whether I have been a little unfair on Johnson. Perhaps the title of “Worst Ever Prime Minister” should be contested by the four Prime Ministers we have had since 2010. The essential judging criteria for a good Prime Minister is that they should leave the country happier, more prosperous and more united at the end of their term in office than at the beginning. A corresponding worst case can be made for each of David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. They all happen to be Conservatives, simply because the Conservatives have been in office so much. If the category was worst party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson and Nick Clegg would be strong contenders but that is not the agenda here. Leaders who wield executive power at the heads of governments are much more consequential for us all.
I am not debating some long forgotten pillock from hundreds of years ago either. These days modern memory no longer stretches to a clunker like Sir Anthony Eden in the 1950s. Even the sixties and seventies are receding into the mists. Worthwhile comparisons begin with Margaret Thatcher.
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The failings of the last four or five Prime Ministers are laid bare in comparison to their impressive immediate predecessors. With all due respect to Sir Anthony Seldon, Thatcher and Tony Blair were both premier league premiers. Love them or hate them they had clear visions which they built on over a decade in power. Britain was better off when they left office than when they came in. Their support acts, Major and Brown, were at least Championship league Prime Ministers. John Major bedded in Thatcherism, won an election, and, as he had hoped, left a nation more at ease with itself. Gordon Brown grasped the need to save the western world’s economy more quickly than anyone else and came up with important answers. All four of them developed a common vision of the UK’s place in the world, grounded in practical realities rather than fancy and prejudice.
Top Trumps packs of Politicos given away by Sky News at party conferences in 2007, 2010 and 2011 are still talked about as one of the best freebies ever. Johnson “the thinking man’s idiot” features once in a pack when he was MP for Henley, eyeing up the London Mayoralty. Cameron features twice, the second time after a year in office with the languid quotation: “I spend half my time trying to find out what the government has been up to and the other half trying to stop them doing it”. There are also two Theresa May cards discussing how long she will survive in the “elephant trap” of the Home Office. Truss and Sunak are missing, not yet players in that pre-digital age.
The point about Top Trumps is that they are not hierarchies working down from aces. The values on each card list a number of categories. At Sky, these wandered from majority and years in parliament to number of Twitter followers and, pre #metoo, to charisma, looks and even “fanciability”.
Any decision on which is the worst of our dud four Prime Ministers should be reached after a comparative assessment across a range of their flaws.
The charges against Truss are glaring and freshest. Arrogance, incompetence, spite and carelessness, resulting in the record-breaking shortest tenure in office and the most obvious damage to the well-being of citizens.
The amoral, lying Johnson deliberately trashed the standards of government and public life. Any “big calls” he may have got right were entirely coincidental since he left the nation on autopilot while he indulged himself elsewhere. As Sky warned in 2007, “Don’t underestimate the blonde ambition…in spite of his tendency to get into scrapes”.
It seems almost unfair to place the decent Mrs May and what Sky called the “affable old-Etonian” Cameron in the same category as the last two villains. Truss-like Theresa May over-estimated her own abilities, albeit she did it out of duty rather then conceit. She was not up to uniting the nation after the close 52% to 48% referendum vote to leave the EU. She took sides instead, polarising leavers and remainers as “people from somewhere and people from nowhere”. She did little to address the burning injustices she identified on her way into number ten. The Tory tiger she tried to feed and ride ate her.
I include Cameron by popular demand. In playing the game of “worst Prime Minister”, I have been struck by the number of people across the spectrum who nominate him. True his administration achieved little other than austerity. But he provokes cold fury for treating the referendum as a way to manage his own party rather than as an existential decision for the UK. For lacking the political skills to avoid it and having the arrogance to assume, wrongly, that he would win it at a trot; thus opening the door to May, Johnson and Truss.
And the winner of Worst Prime Minister Ever is…up to you. It is undoubtedly one of those four for now. “Ever” is a long time and the ruling party is tired and divided with a depleted pool of talent.
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