What makes a Prime Minister great?
Theresa May, as she departs, and Boris Johnson, as he arrives, should now be made aware of my most devastating political anecdote. In around 2008 or so, someone rang me from a pub quiz to ask me if John Major had ever been Prime Minister. When I said he was there for seven years the response was a combination of sheer incredulity and pure profanity. Like every other leader, May entered Downing Street hoping to be written into the history books but she should remember she can, and probably will, just as easily disappear into a pub quiz black hole. It’s even harder for so-called takeovers, who come into power without a general election win and on average get just three years in the job.
In the nick of time for May’s departure and Johnson’s arrival, up popped a poll byYouGov asking the public about the greatest Prime Minister since World War Two. Surveys like this provide hours of fun, though I use the term ‘fun’ relatively. We need to be a careful about these polls, of course. One famous (possibly apocryphal) poll found a surprisingly high proportion of those polled could name Lenin – but a large number of those who could thought his first name was ‘John’.
Despite this, these polls tell us something about how we remember, forget and think, or don’t think, about our Prime Ministers. Twitter was momentarily set alight by the fact that Thatcher won the poll with 21% of the vote. Churchill then came second with 19%. Tony Blair was third on 6%, followed by Clement Attlee on 5% and Harold Wilson on 4%. The others got more-or-less none – but dig down into the detail and you can see that 2% of those polled thought David Cameron was the greatest post-war Prime Minister. I can only assume that some part of Cameron’s extended family was caught up in the poll sample. Theresa May got 0%.