Every new British premiership is baptised in tears of joy and exultation. Glad confident morning! But all end in tears of sadness, anger and recrimination. The only issue is how long the incumbent will hold out before the Grim Reaper bangs his scythe rudely on the door of No 10 to cart them off.
How do we let the pageant and rituals of the transition deceive us into dreamily forgetting its essential impermanence? Picture it now. On 5 September Liz Truss (we assume) will sweep back from Buckingham Palace and stride to the lectern in Downing Street to read a speech that will delight and infuriate. “I have just returned from seeing Her Majesty…” Previous baptismal PMs have choked out words about school mottos, their religious beliefs and parental aspirations. Truss will speak about her journey, and her intentions for power. The door will close behind her and the broadcasters will intone: “Now at last, facing the most serious problems of any incomer in living memory, the hard work begins.” Indeed.
Must it now be all downhill for incoming premiers until their appointment with the Reaper? The answer is no: having written or edited books on most prime ministers since the war, I have concluded that there are ten rules of premiership to which all successful leaders abide to varying degrees. Nothing will of course prevent Truss’s suffering the same fate as every other prime minister since 1918, when Britain became a modern democracy. All are hurried out of No 10 prematurely after election defeat, illness, policy failure or rebellion. But if she observes these iron laws, her premiership may be judged a success, even if its demise cannot be delayed.
To do so will require a respect for history, which prime ministers and Whitehall blithely ignore. Boris Johnson’s best appointment was embedding the historian John Bew at the heart of No 10. If only Johnson had paid even more heed to history.
The media has speculated obsessively about what Truss (and Rishi Sunak) will do in power. We can safely ignore much of it. Truss’s focus will be solely on those incremental changes judged likely to mitigate the economic woes and maximise the chance of general election victory in two years or less. Any significant changes, to the machinery of government as elsewhere, must wait. So how will she measure up against my ten laws?
Securing the citadel is the first. As every leader in history has known, you are only as good as your court – and No 10 is every bit as much a court as those that the Tudor and Stuart monarchs presided over in the Palace of Whitehall just 100 yards away. Amazingly, most prime ministers do not ensure that, behind the black door, they secure the right people. Loyal, proficient and stable staff are needed to oversee the policy, the politics and presentation. Most incomers, madly, prize previous friendship and relationships above Downing Street know-how and professional skill. The two most successful prime ministers since 1945, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, had stable and competent teams, and both had strong relationships with their cabinet secretaries. Tony Blair, too, had a rare stability in his staff in No 10 – presided over by his chief of staff Jonathan Powell – but would have been more successful if he had also bonded tightly with just one cabinet secretary to show him how to get things done. Expect from Truss incremental not radical changes in Downing Street and a strengthening of all-important Treasury and financial know-how in her private office. “We saw what [Dominic] Cummings tried to do with revolution at the heart of government and it’s not for us,” one of her close staff told me.
Forging a constructive relationship with a proficient chancellor is the backbone of every successful premiership. Nothing matters more to the survival of the prime minister than optimising the economy: without good relations with the chancellor, it will not happen. A breakdown of this relationship accelerated the end of the premierships of Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. After his first chancellor, Iain Macleod, died within weeks of his government coming to power, Ted Heath appointed an inadequate successor in Anthony Barber, who lost control of inflation – a real warning for Truss.
Blair’s achievements in office were hampered by the increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Gordon Brown, for which they were both responsible. Brown fared little better with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, while the former cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood said that he had never seen a prime minister’s relationship with a chancellor deteriorate so quickly as did Theresa May’s with Philip Hammond. Johnson found it difficult to forge a stable relationship with his first two chancellors, Sajid Javid and Sunak.
Truss expects far better with her chosen candidate, Kwasi Kwarteng, and looks to model their relationship on David Cameron’s with George Osborne, especially after the coalition was disbanded in 2015. A better model, because it had more of an edge, was the relationship between John Major and Kenneth Clarke between 1993 and 1997.
[See also: Can Liz Truss’s tax cuts save the economy?]
Finding their own voice and being someone to whom the country can relate are essential for a prime minister. Thatcher, Blair and Johnson did so supremely, boosted by their respective early successes: the Falklands War; handling the death of Princess Diana; and getting Brexit done. Such actions helped them establish their prime ministerial tone. Major, Brown and May never found their authentic voices. This might be a problem for Keir Starmer, too, if he ever becomes prime minister. In opposition, Starmer will face a female adversary heading a diverse cabinet. Truss has grown in confidence throughout the leadership contest, and has a credible back-story that irritates some but which others admire. She has a persona and she’s not afraid to put it in our faces. But can she resist provoking those who irritate her, from the Bank of England to Emmanuel Macron? Applause from the right wing press and ERG is not the same as leadership.
Macro- not micro-politics is the fourth law. Prime ministers are remembered for one major event or policy, and only rarely for two or three. Successful prime ministers define their key themes early on, and stick to them to the end. Johnson found his in making Brexit happen after three years of stasis and campaigning to win the general election in 2019. Too early. Within weeks, and well before Covid struck, his premiership had begun to unravel. “Levelling up” never became more than a slogan, the equivalent of Major’s “citizen’s charter”, Cameron’s “big society” or May’s “burning injustices”. All nice ideas, but not worked-out policies for government.
It matters not whether their big agenda is devised by them, as was Harold Macmillan’s drive for affordable consumer goods, or forced on them, as happened to Brown with the global financial crisis in 2008. Successful prime ministers have all had a clear purpose. They have then needed to judge the right moment to unleash it: Thatcher bided her time in her first three years to build strength before striking out; Blair squandered his first term when his political capital was at its height, so had too little of it left in the bank when, late in the day, and post-Iraq War, he began to implement his domestic agenda. Truss’s record to date shows she can’t always distinguish the big picture from the detail. PMQs are important, for example, but she will have to learn that she can’t devote hours to them.
Commanding their time is hard for the prime minister when so much of it is taken up by non-discretionary activities with no obvious gain. “Why the hell am I having to do this?” is a common howl of frustration from new premiers. The job is exhausting and relentless; few perform it at their optimal best. Some, like Anthony Eden, Macmillan and Brown, burned themselves out. It’s simple: poor health, poor premiership. Ted Heath, with his sailing and orchestra-conducting, James Callaghan escaping to his Sussex farm, and David Cameron chillaxing with his family and friends – they all ruthlessly carved out time, ignored the snide comments and kept a sense of perspective. Truss must let No 10 and cabinet ministers do the work while she takes time out to rest, strategise and reflect. Seemingly hyperactive, she might find this a problem.
Most prime ministers have been terrible managers of their ministerial teams. They appoint friends (and foes), not proven managers, to run the key departments, then fiddle and muddle while failing to give clear strategic direction. They then irritate everyone in sight by holding, in the place of clear strategy, flatulent away-days at Chequers. All prime ministers complain that they pull levers and nothing happens. What do they expect? The prime minister is like a military commander in a war. They decide the strategy before the battle: they don’t fly the planes, sail the ships or fire the guns.
A strong deputy prime minister, as Willie Whitelaw was to Thatcher, or Chris Patten then Michael Heseltine to Major, are essential. Johnson needed one, but never trusted Dominic Raab, his de jure deputy, nor Michael Gove, his de facto deputy, to do the job. Thérèse Coffey has the right skills and personality to do this job for Truss. I am told Truss wants to stand back and to use her patronage powers of promoting and sacking. She should learn from the very best: the clinically ruthless Attlee, who binned ministers and appointed the best cabinet of the last century.
[See also: Why Rishi Sunak failed]
All prime ministers, Truss no exception, set out saying that they’re not going to be “media-driven”. They all become so. No premiership is remembered positively for instant rebuttals, nor for the volume of newsprint stories and photographs. The media drags the PM away from strategic thinking into tactical responses. Harold Wilson after 1964 is often seen as the first media-obsessed prime minister. But Winston Churchill in the early 1950s was regularly phoning up press proprietors to complain, while Macmillan feigned indifference but was constantly worrying about the Tory press. Truss will have to succeed here where so many of her predecessors failed. She needs urgently to find her equivalent of Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s long-standing media chief.
The PM also needs to be responsive to all of the big moments, the disasters, major financial events and times of national success. May pitched up too late after the Grenfell fire in 2017. Truss will need to judge when to turn up and when to turn away. Such moments define a premiership, as when the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, became the face of her country’s grief and sorrow with her empathetic response to the Christchurch terrorist attack in 2019. There is more a PM can do. Defining phrases that are true to the leader’s image, such as Thatcher’s 1980 line, “The lady’s not for turning”, cement reputations. Truss will need to find her moments and phrases, and move beyond trying to be like Thatcher and unlike May.
Successful prime ministers run lean operations, avoiding unnecessary initiatives and reshuffles. They don’t fiddle and tweak. They have judgement. We know a premiership is struggling when the talk is of endless relaunches, or reheated announcements of existing commitments. Had the prime minister set the ship’s course clearly from the moment they left port, they would not be trying to yank the wheel mid-ocean, nor would they be blown off course when the gales inevitably come. Truss has her agenda predetermined with her big three strategies already articulated: the economy, the cost of living and the NHS. But will she stick to them?
Finally, the prime minister must act with decorum. The instant they are appointed by the monarch and asked to form a government, they are no longer just the factional head of one political party. They must now speak for the whole nation, carrying some of the mantle of head of state (and the passage to the new monarch might occur on her watch). Most prime ministers have failed to make this transition, becoming overly ground down by party political commitments including fundraising, by-elections and haranguing the opposition.
Yet the electorate is changing, and becoming less committed to traditional party loyalties. The space is wide open for a prime minister to appeal to the whole nation and to head a government in the national interest; for a leader who is mindful of long-term needs so often ignored by hand-to-mouth administrations.
The prime minister is the defender of the constitution, and must not denigrate national institutions like the BBC, universities and judiciary, nor the civil service. May’s and Johnson’s teams disparaged and demoralised the civil service without reforming or improving it. Ironically, Johnson, who began his premiership precipitously dismissing Peter Hill, his senior official, had by the end of it come to realise that civil servants were his most effective and clear-headed advisers. Truss has restorative work to do here. Prime ministers must be seen to show respect for parliament, for which Johnson had contempt. They are the head of the whole United Kingdom and must find time to spend in all four nations.
[See also: Liz Truss faces a tricky return to parliament]
Since the 1990s, the prime minister has effectively become foreign secretary as well, the nation’s chief ambassador overseeing relations with the United States, the European Union, the G7, China and, importantly now, Russia. They lose credibility at home and abroad if they do not behave well. Johnson was fatally damaged by his personal failings and so too was Blair for not admitting errors of judgement over Iraq. Truss needs to rebuild trust, and saying, as she has, that she might not re-appoint an ethics adviser is not the way to do it. She has shown a past willingness to admit errors, but once in No 10, the advice will be never to apologise. She will be a lesser prime minister if she heeds that advice.
Truss will come to No 10 the most experienced prime minister since John Major. Her five immediate predecessors served incredibly in only three departments between them. She has been a cabinet minister for seven years, and worked in five departments. Nothing in life, though, prepares incomers for No 10: some, like Macmillan, step up; others, like Eden, step down. And in truth, no one, not even Truss, knows how she will perform in office. All we know is that the inheritance is bloody, and that winning the next general election will be far harder than she yet realises. Heeding these ten rules will increase her chances of serving with honour – but nothing can prevent the Reaper’s eventual knock on No 10.
Anthony Seldon’s book, “Johnson at 10”, will be published in the spring
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine