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22 October 2022updated 24 Oct 2022 12:19pm

A week is a long time in politics: some notes on short tenures

There’s something fascinating about leaders who’ve barely sat down before they’re moving on once again.

By Jonn Elledge

You could write entire books about the life of George Canning. On his first birthday, his father died in penury, forcing his mother to make her living on the stage, a profession so scandalous it was seriously considered a potential bar to his political career. It didn’t stop him. Canning became the MP for the rotten borough of Newtown by the age of 23, was a minister by 25 and in the cabinet by his mid-30s. He was foreign secretary for part of the Napoleonic Wars, during which time he took the unusual step of bombarding Copenhagen; he fought a duel with Lord Castlereagh; he probably had an affair with the queen. When he finally made it to the top at last, becoming prime minister in April 1827, he decided to be his own chancellor too.

This man’s life was amazing. He deserves his own box set. And yet, nobody ever remembers his meteoric rise, or his personal intrigues, or even, with the possible exception of the Danes, the attack on Copenhagen. The only thing anyone ever remembers is that, 119 days after entering Downing Street, he died of tuberculosis. Two centuries after his demise George Canning is notable only for the brevity of his tenure.

And now Liz Truss has deprived him even of that. Forced to resign 44 days into the job, she will last, if her party really drags its heels on the leadership race, a mere 52 – and she managed to destroy the economy, her party and oversee a change of monarch on the way. I mean it isn’t even close is it? Poor old Canning will never be mentioned again.

The death of Elizabeth II was a reminder that there’s something fascinating about monarchs or ministers who go on and on, individuals who hold a position for so long they come to typify their role, or even their era. There’s something equally fascinating, though, about those at the other end of the scale, who’ve barely sat down before they’re moving on once again.

The nature of monarchy means that, for anyone not to make it to year two, something pretty interesting must have happened. With Edward VIII (ten and a half months in 1936) it was the abdication crisis; with Edward V (two and a half in 1483) it was almost certainly murder, with just enough wriggle room to enable years of pretenders and centuries of alternative theories and people digging holes in car parks.

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The fate of Lady Jane Grey (a disputed English queen for nine days in 1553, executed on the orders of Mary I the following year) contains both the story of the English reformation in microcosm, and a reminder that (I’m so sorry about this) if you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. By contrast, there’s the shortest-tenured Pope, Urban VII, who lasted 13 days in 1590, and whose death was so clearly caused by malaria he doesn’t seem to have attracted any conspiracy theories at all. This is a shame, as his only papal achievement seems to have been to introduce the world’s first smoking ban, so there’s a really obvious one involving the early modern forerunners of the smokers’ rights group Forest just sitting there.

The Roman Empire was full of emperors who had ridiculous short reigns – this will tend to happen if you’ve made it clear to your personal bodyguard that they’ll probably get to pick your replacement. The Year of Four Emperors, AD 69, was a civil war in which four emperors ruled in succession: a symptom of the instability that followed the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had been running the show for a century. There was later a Year of Five Emperors (AD 193) and a Year of Six Emperors (AD 238), too, but each of these involved rival claimants as well as rapid turnover: that suggests both growing instability and a sort of inflation in how much chaos a crisis needs to involve to get noticed. (We’ve just got time, if the new Tory leader holds a snap election, to make 2022 the Year of Four Prime Ministers.)

Over in the US, by now everybody knows the story of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who refused to wear a coat to his own inauguration in March 1841, caught a chill and 30 days later died. (Truss beat him, at least.) Less well known is that, nine years and three presidents later, Zachary Taylor ate too many cherries and drank too much iced milk at a fundraising event for the Washington Monument, caught a stomach bug and died a mere 15 months into his term. Researchers have since argued that both men died of the same thing – typhoid, brought on by dirty water in the White House – and that it may have done for James Polk, who served between them and died three months after leaving office, too. This is, however, substantially less funny than the coat story.

I could go on, and probably will, so just a couple of points before I’ve accidentally been writing this for longer than Liz Truss was in Downing Street. Firstly, if the outgoing PM were Australian her tenure would only be the fifth shortest. Admittedly, three of the four shorter terms were served by caretaker leaders following deaths in office – but one, Arthur Fadden’s 39 days as PM in 1941 before he lost first a confidence vote and then a national election, was legitimately briefer.

Lastly, in Italy, Amintore Fanfani’s first government, in 1954, lasted for just 25 days. It’s only the fact that he came back four more times, all the way until 1987, that means he isn’t at the bottom of the league tables. If you’ve been wondering what could possibly be more frightening than a second Boris Johnson government, then may I offer: four more Liz Truss governments, taking us all the way to 2055?

Don’t have nightmares, now.

[See also: Political friendship is a liability – just ask Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng]

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