Great British crisis? Call it a once in a century event

Not for the first time, the UK has had a number of prime ministers in a year – and it always seems to be in the 20s

Prime Minister Liz Truss announces her resignation outside No 10 Downing Street on October 20. Getty
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A child aged 7 in Britain will be living under its fifth prime minister by the end of next week. A time of extraordinary instability at the top has led the political revolving door to spin ever faster.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel commented on Thursday that he was struggling to remember all the British counterparts he had encountered.

Another pundit pointed out that in the entire 13 years of the last Labour government there were two prime ministers and two chancellors of the exchequer, or a total of three politicians. The 12 years of Conservative-led rule since is moving on to five prime ministers and six chancellors.

In fact, periodic spasms are a feature of British history. Unlike in America where analysts compare the big mid-term shifts in control of Congress and France on its fifth republic, few in the UK talk about the parallels between the biggest periods of political trauma.

The Labour Downing St trio: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Alistair Darling. Getty Images

It passed largely unremarked that the night before Liz Truss resigned, backbench Conservative MPs were marking 100 years of their powerful representative grouping, the 1922 Committee. Chaired by Sir Graham Brady, it set the rules on Thursday for the party to whittle its next leadership contenders down to two by Monday and announce the result by Friday.

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Britain has behaved badly and it has lost its ace in the queen
Anthony Seldon

The resignation of Ms Truss was forced by a debt crisis after she announced radical tax cuts. Her departure means that No 10 Downing Street will have its third handover of power in 2022 by next weekend. Most observers and the markets, scarred by a six-week transition in the summer that was widely regarded as failed politics, want the change to be rapid.

"The timetable has been set by Graham Brady in a way that is intended to bring everything to a fast conclusion," Conservative party elections expert Lord Hayward told The National. "In this, he is reflecting the desire of the parliamentary party, the Tory party at large and the nation at large. This has been almost a psychodrama for the last five or six months and is unparalleled in most people's memory."

Veterans of good government have called on ruling party MPs to get the contest that opens on Monday completed as soon as possible. The markets are looking on for any instability that threatens a deviation from good economic management.

“I think it's in everybody's interest for this process to go ahead incredibly quickly and smoothly and come up with an answer which is clear, so people have faith in a new government and a new Cabinet that can command a majority in the House of Commons,” said Lord Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the British civil service.

The modern bout of infighting is traced back by most to the pivotal 2016 Brexit vote to leave the EU. For historians the current events are not wholly unprecedented. It was not only the 1920s that saw upheaval. Go back to the 1820s and there was another period of turmoil. Like this year, 1827 was marked by three prime ministers in short order. Perhaps most ominously for the present day, both those crisis points were followed by about a decade of splits and schisms.

Protectionist Conservatives banded together in 1922 to force the party to leave the post-First World War coalition under the Liberal prime minister Lloyd George. One of the rebels' sympathisers, Andrew Bonar Law, took over and won the Conservatives a majority in the December election. Ill health forced him out nine months later and his successor, Stanley Baldwin, called another election in which the Tories lost their majority. By 1924, Labour's first prime minister had taken power.

British PM Andrew Bonar Law (1858 - 1923), leaving No 10 Downing Street on budget day, April 1923. Getty

The upheaval of 1922 was ultimately a fight about the economy. Protectionists who eventually coalesced on the 1922 Committee have been compared to the Brexit-backing European Research Group that is so influential in today's politics. "The group, known as the Diehards, harried the government with the kind of dedication that intransigent members of the European Research Group were to display nearly a century later," the historian Lord Lexden said.

In the 1820s, the driver of the turmoil was the revolt of the 'Ultra Tories' who undermined the long-serving Lord Liverpool and were driven to despair when the relatively moderate George Canning took over in 1827. Before Ms Truss outdid him, Mr Canning went down in history as the shortest-serving UK prime minister, spending only five months in the job before his death in August. Viscount Goderich took over and outlasted Mr Canning's 119 days but was there for only 144 days as the party split forced him out in January.

George Canning. Getty Images

The warrior politician, the Duke of Wellington, followed Goderich for his first term in power but the divisions in the ranks were so deep that by 1834, there were four prime ministers in Downing Street in total. This included a second term for the Iron Duke that only lasted from November 17 to December 9, shorter than Ms Truss managed in 2022.

Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington. Getty Images

Riots and confrontations were features of both periods. The Swing riots of the 1830s are commemorated to this day at the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival in Devon. The General Strike of 1926 was as close as the UK came to a Communist-style revolution.

Anthony Seldon, the author of The Impossible Office? among other histories he has written about No 10, regards the current crisis as one of the most distinct and consequential.

"There could be a reaction in the country," he told The National. "We were close to that during Brexit. Britain is not a mutinous country compared to most other European countries — apathy is sometimes a reason that historians give for the British not rising up but there could be just such a detestation of the Tories if people start suffering financially and a sense arises there needs to be a general election to get them out.

"Even if they come up with a solid [new leadership] team there is no guarantee that will make the difference."

Mr Seldon lays the blame on the conduct of senior politicians at head of the Conservatives, which has seen such a rapid "churn" in the great offices of state.

The historian singles out Jeremy Hunt, who was installed as Chancellor last week to oversee an emergency U-turn in the mini-budget and the junking of the tax rises. "There are people who are fit for the job, Jeremy Hunt has the experience but doesn't want it.

"Rishi Sunak would be fit for the job but the party isn't certain they want him," he added. "To match those who have the maturity, experience and personality to the ability to do the job well is very difficult. The party goes for people who promise big, like Boris Johnson, but don't have the intellectual and emotional maturity to handle the top job."

Mr Seldon sees a quad of leading Conservatives as the nucleus of a "sensible government" comprising Mr Sunak, Mr Hunt, Penny Mordaunt, a former defence secretary, and the incumbent in that job, Ben Wallace. He is scathing on the "abject failure" of the right as it tried to push its agenda around Brexit and tax reform. "They learn nothing, they know nothing these people," he added. "They are full of their own ideological fervour — my father founded the Institute of Economic Affairs that provided their ideas and he would have deplored the naivety and folly of what we are seeing."

The effect on the UK's global reputation has been tangible during the 2022 crisis and Mr Seldon sees a lot of lost ground to recover its standing. "Its difficult for Britain, which now has to eat some humble pie," he explained. "Britain has to readjust to its position and concentrate on its soft power, the magnificent universities, education system, arts and culture."

One last factor Mr Seldon considers just as important for the loss of esteem worldwide is the recent death of the monarch who reigned for 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II, who was a global figure and a pillar of national life. "The queen had far greater ability to speak to the nation than anybody at No 10 had," he said. "In terms of the perception of Britain abroad, people never know the names of come-and-go prime ministers but they all know the name of the monarch. It's a stabilising force that is all part of the mix of making Britain a serious player on the world stage.

"Britain has behaved badly and it has lost its ace in the queen."

Updated: October 23, 2022, 7:36 PM
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