Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, has announced her resignation. It came as a surprise. Of course she has her critics, rather more at home than abroad, but there were no murmurs of discontent within the Labour Party, no intrigues, no back stairs jobbery. She was expected to lead her party into the general election in October. But she herself has decided that she is not now the person to lead the country. In her own words, she has nothing left in the tank.
It has been said that all prime ministerial careers end in failure. Here, you lose the confidence of the electorate, or the confidence of your own cabinet, and you are hauled out of No. 10, kicking and screaming. It’s the exact opposite to the way in which the House elects Mr Speaker. The appointee is dragged apparently reluctantly from the backbenches, by a cross-party posse, to the chair. There is good humour across the floor of the house. It’s a piece of pantomime. But there is nothing light-hearted about an eviction from No. 10. It is salutary to consider the mode of demise of the post-war British prime ministers.
Mr Attlee lost the election in October 1951. Churchill came back and clung on, despite failing health, until 1955, while his heir apparent waited in the wings, increasingly impatient and frustrated. Yet Anthony Eden himself went in 1957, destroyed by a botched cholecystectomy, and Suez.
Macmillan was in turn destroyed by the Profumo scandal, and That Was The Week That Was. Accusations of sleaze made the government an object of mockery. You can’t govern if nobody takes you seriously. Alec Douglas Home took over, but he lost the general election in 1964. Still, he was such a patrician figure that he rather bucks the trend, and stepped down with equanimity. Perhaps the job was always beneath him.
Harold Wilson is another exception. Yes, he lost to Ted Heath in 1970. He didn’t see that coming, and neither did the polls. Mr Wilson looked very rueful. But he made a come-back, and defeated Mr Heath in 1974. Margaret Thatcher took over the Tory leadership, and Mr Heath reputedly went into the longest sulk in parliamentary history. Nowadays, prime ministers can’t continue to lead their party if they lose an election. They are like football managers, with coats on shoogly pegs. Yet Harold Wilson found himself PM once more in 1974. But then, somewhat like Ms Ardern, he surprised everybody by stepping down in 1976. Rumour attributes causation to an early visitation from Herr Alzheimer.
Callaghan was undone by a winter of discontent. Crisis? What crisis? He lost the 1979 general election to Mrs Thatcher, who was able to cross Downing Street and address the press with a quotation from St Francis of Assisi which now carries an ironic ring. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…” Her tenure in office was doubtless boosted by the Falklands war. But in the end she was destroyed by her own party. One remembers the devastating demolition job in the house by the mild-mannered Geoffrey Howe.
John Major took over, a surprise choice, even to himself, having had a whistle-stop tour of the high offices of state at breakneck speed. Then he surprised Neil Kinnock, who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But the close of his tenure was very painful. Remember “Put up or shut up”. And “The bastards!”
Then Mr Blair arrived. Things could only get better. This is the dawn of a new age, is it not? It is said that he made a deal with Mr Brown to step aside in good time and give Big Broon a fair crack of the whip. But Mr Blair was a very successful politician and he won three general elections, so why quit when you are ahead?
Mr Brown was known as a big political beast with a huge intellect and an enormous capacity for hard work. But he never looked as if he was enjoying himself, and he didn’t have the knack of making his own luck. He had the financial crash to deal with. He lost in 2010. He tried to cling on and form a government, but the numbers didn’t stack up.
Enter Mr Cameron, on the basis of a slick performance, versus Mr Davis’s lacklustre effort, at the conservative party conference. The referendum on proportional representation went his way, as did the referendum on Scottish Independence. But, like a gambler’s lucky streak, it all vanished with the Brexit Referendum, and he had to go.
Mrs May, a Remainer supervising the Brexit negotiations, was handed a poisoned chalice. She called a snap general election, promising – remember? – “strong and stable government”, and it all went disastrously wrong. She became reliant on the support of the DUP. The attorney general bellowed from the despatch box, “This is a dead parliament!” It was like a Monty Python sketch.
Hence Boris, who would rather have been dead in a ditch than not “get Brexit done”. But then the pandemic came along. As Mr Macmillan said, “Events, dear boy…” Covid nearly did for Boris, and certainly his disregard for Covid rules did for him politically. He went with extreme reluctance, hinting at a Cincinnatus-like comeback.
Ms Truss lasted six weeks.
Against this backdrop, the refreshing thing about Jacinda Ardern is, quite simply, that she is normal. And she inhabits a country, not without its problems, but open, transparent, and at ease with itself. Back here in Blighty, on Mr Sunak’s watch, there are two murky stories unfolding, one concerning a government minister’s tax affairs, the other an allegation of cronyism twixt the government and the chairman of the BBC. Dickens’ depiction of Victorian London still holds good.