Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
25 September 2019updated 29 Oct 2019 12:20pm

Could Boris Johnson be the shortest-lived prime minister in British history?

If he’s out before 20 November, yes.

By Jonn Elledge

On 24 July, after decades of build-up, Boris Johnson finally achieved his life’s ambition and became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. On 24 September, when Johnson had been PM precisely 62 days, the Supreme Court unanimously found his government had acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament, and the Financial Times – a paper normally immune from such passions – took the unprecedented step of suggesting he should resign.

And at time of writing, if you search his name on Google, here’s what auto-complete suggests:

So – could a man who has spent his entire adult life manoeuvring for the top job really find that he ends up as its briefest ever occupant?

It’s certainly plausible. A couple of the men invited to form ministries by George II failed to command the confidence of Parliament, and stood down almost immediately (Lord Bath after two days in 1746; Lord Waldegrave after three in 1757). But although they may have considered themselves to be at the head of the British government for a few stressful hours in the mid-18th century, neither tend to be included on the list of proper British Prime Ministers today, so can probably be discounted.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

The man generally given the accolade of being the shortest-lived – an unfortunate phrase, that – Prime Minister of all is instead George Canning. In a glittering parliamentary career in the early 19th century, the Tory Canning served various as President of the Board of Control, Leader of the House of Commons, and foreign secretary. When his friend and ally Lord Liverpool stood down as Prime Minister in April 1827, he was seen as the obvious successor. He even appointed himself as his own Chancellor of the Exchequer too, the big show off.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

That was where it all went wrong, however, because his health almost immediately declined, until on 8 August – just 119 days after he took the job – he expired. Lord Liverpool, who had only stepped down because of a stroke, actually managed to outlive him, even though he turned out to be in the throes of his final illness at the time.

So Canning’s is the record to beat. And if Boris Johnson is gone before 20 November – perhaps not probable, but certainly not crazily unlikely – he will beat it.

Even if he does, of course, there is hope for Johnson’s legacy: while Canning’s is the shortest total tenure, it isn’t the shortest individual ministry. The Marquess of Rockingham’s 1782 ministry lasted just 97 days – he too died in office – but we don’t count him as the prime minister with the shortest tenure because he’d already had a go, lasting just over a year in 1765-6.

Then there’s the Duke of Wellington, who in 1834 declined to become Prime Minister in favour of Robert Peel, but agreed to form a caretaker ministry for the 23 days it took Peel to get back from a trip to Italy. That was his second ministry, too, bringing his total length of office up to not far off three years.

At any rate: if Johnson is forced out, but returns to Downing Street either after an election or a failure of the Commons to rally round an alternative candidate – again, neither outcome feels exactly impossible right now – he could resign without going down in history as the briefest prime minister of all time. We shall see.

Aside from becoming Prime Minister, the other thing Boris Johnson has always wanted, of course, is to be remembered by history. The thought occurs that one of the few remotely famous men to have served as US President between the passing of the founders and the arrival of Abraham Lincoln in 1861 is the 9th president, William Henry Harrison.

He’s remembered not for anything that he did, but for the brevity of the time in which he had to do it. Just 31 days after taking office in 1841 he snuffed it – possibly because he refused to wear a coat to his own inaugeration; probably because of a dodgy White House water supply – inspiring, some 152 years later, the children of Springfield Elementary School to sing a song about him on The Simpsons.

If Boris Johnson really does fall during the next few weeks, he is likely to be remembered in a similar fashion. Which makes me wonder whether, somewhere in Downing Street, you will find a monkey’s paw with two fingers curled.

The longest serving British Prime Minister, incidentally, is still the first: Sir Robert Walpole served from April 1721 until February 1742 which, anyone who has mastered basic arithmetic will tell you, is just a few weeks shy of 21 years. If Boris Johnson were to beat that – pause for hollow laughter – he would have to be in Downing Street until May 2040. Don’t have nightmares now.