One of the perks of being a middle-aged political hack is that you can remember a lot of people. For example, I have met - sometimes just shaken hands with, occasionally talked to at length - every British prime minister from Macmillan onwards. And what a disparate bunch they have been. You might imagine there would be some thread in common: restless ambition; adeptness at wielding power; even, if only briefly, a certain idealism. You can find connections between two individuals: Blair and Thatcher share a ruthless streak; Attlee and Douglas-Home fell unexpectedly into the job; Wilson and Major were more concerned with staying in their post than achieving anything very much while there. But nothing binds them. As Macmillan said to a colleague who was working on a book about the British aristocracy: "You might as well write a book about all the people whose names begin with the letter D." Now Haus Publishing's series The 20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century presents them in all this intriguing and sometimes puzzling variety.
Macmillan was a tremendous poser. When he spoke at a Young Conservatives gathering a few years before he died, he was guided - stooped, with stick in hand - to the podium, where he gravely told bemused delegates that "the arrows of death are plumed with the feathers of ambition". Afterwards, the young man who had brought him on stage - his grandson, I think - confided that he had marched briskly up to the wings and only then assumed the stick and the hobble for public consumption. He devoted his final years to the pleasures of being rude about his successor-but-two. ("We have a new car. It says 'put your seat belt on', or 'slow down'. It's a very bossy car. We call it Margaret Thatcher.")
Douglas-Home was diffident beyond measure. At some point in the 1970s, he was in the first-class compartment of a train to Scotland. A middle-aged couple in the corridor did a double take, then the wife said: "My husband and I think it was a tragedy that you were never prime minister." He replied courteously: "As a matter of fact I was. But only for a very short time." Interestingly, in a new Tory conference video, he was the only 20th-century leader not to be mentioned.
Harold Wilson was typically found with brandy and cigar in hand, sitting around at night with his kitchen cabinet. He was the last of the long-serving premiers, by and large, who let his cabinet get on with it. An adviser who worked with him told me: "I really don't know what he finds to do all day. He doesn't seem to have any work." Well, he kept the Labour Party together; in those days, that was thought an end in itself.
Edward Heath, meanwhile, was a Jekyll and Hyde. The "good Ted" could be marvellous and surprising company - he once turned up to a formal lunch in a turquoise and orange Miami Dolphins sweatshirt. The "bad Ted" was mean-spirited and vengeful. When one of his Treasury ministers, John Nott, approached him in the lobby to warn him about rising inflation, Heath refused to listen, growling: "If you want to resign, put it in writing." His successor, James Callaghan, quickly realised that the forces of change were about to sweep him away. He described private meetings with Thatcher, then leader of the opposition: "She wags her finger at me, and I have to remind myself who's prime minister."
This was not a problem any of us had while she was PM. While still in opposition, Thatcher made a remark that sums up everything about her, including her upbringing and her attitude to authority. She was guest of honour at the parliamentary press children's Christmas party and came upon a small boy crying into his dessert bowl. "They've given me blancmange, and I don't like blancmange," he sobbed. "That," she replied, "is what parties are all about - eating food you don't like." (I know that story is true because the Father Christmas told me.)
Then there was John Major. He had real qualities, yet I always thought he resembled Edward Scissorhands trying to make balloon animals - he was willing, but perhaps not the ideal person for the job. My favourite Major moment came after he had lost the premiership. We were at breakfast after a David Frost show, and discussion turned to a new bill in parliament that would allow transsexuals the legal rights of their new sex. Frost said: "What I want to know is, can a man who was once a woman ever have an erection?" None of us knew, but the look of pained bewilderment on Major's face is something I will not forget.
And Tony Blair. Blair's greatest skill, and greatest weakness, is telling people what they want to hear. Hence the "People's Princess". Hence all those minor foreign plenipotentiaries who leave Downing Street scarcely able to believe what they've got from him, to the chagrin of the Foreign Office. Hence Gordon Brown thinking that what was said at Granita was more than just a courteous intimation of what might, or might not, occur some time in the future. (The Japanese word "hai" could have been coined for Blair. Westerners trying to close business deals think it means "yes". In fact, it means no more than "I have noted what you say".)
These leaders are an extraordinarily mixed bag: you cannot even say that they were all popular with the public, which American presidents usually are, if only for a few months. Which of us lay in bed hoping that Douglas-Home, or even Ted Heath, would shape our destinies? Baldwin reminded people of themselves, but how many demonstrations were there demanding Andrew Bonar Law? Churchill and Blair filled an evident need at the time, but the polls remind us that Gordon Brown will have to work hard to win the electorate's affections.
Each of the Haus books - they are all by dif ferent writers, including journalists, biographers, historians and politicians - is handsomely presented, with first-rate and often rare photographs, helpful sidebars about relevant people and events, and illuminating quotes from other writers' assessments. That said, the series has been sloppily put together and there are silly errors that a copy editor should have picked up. A great chunk of my copy of Wilson is simply missing, replaced by a wodge of pages from the end of the book, where they also appear again. Clearly, too, the writers have had neither the time nor, I suspect, the financial incentive to do much original research. Nor are they inclined to get into academic scraps, so read as a whole, the series takes on the air of a children's encyclopaedia written for the more intelligent teenager.
But there is an unexpected advantage. Each book is roughly the same length: Thatcher is only 12 pages longer than Douglas-Home, who was at No 10 for one year. Bonar Law, with 209 days in office, gets four pages more than Churchill. This might seem ridiculous, but in fact it allows the books to expand into the whole history of the time - political, social and economic - giv- ing them more interest and texture than we would get from a canter through bills, crises and conferences.
And they have very different tones. Mick Temple's Blair is both gossipy and critical, giving the man little credit for anything except the economy. He is clearly one of those like the late Linda Smith, who said: "I had absolutely no hopes of Tony Blair, but even I have been disappointed." Paul Routledge's Wilson concentrates heavily on the spymasters' plots. Anne Perkins's Baldwin brings the man more alive than he may even have deserved. (Baldwin spent many languid hours on the front bench, listening to debates, a habit that is inconceivable now.) Clare Beckett tries, in Thatcher, to reconcile her subject as a woman and as an honorary man (not always an easy task), while Robert Taylor is strikingly affectionate about Major.
It would be fun to compile another series of books, on the nearly-men of Downing Street. Maybe failure would provide a more consistent thread: Curzon, Halifax, Bevan, Butler, Brown, Healey, Kinnock, Whitelaw, Heseltine, Smith and - who can be sure these days? - perhaps another Brown.
Simon Hoggart is a political columnist for the Guardian