Over the last year or so, it’s been common for people to say that Lord North’s ghost is now resting more easily, since Theresa May had taken over his title as Britain’s worst ever prime minister.
The comparison is unfair to North. He led the government for twelve years (1770-82), and had significant successes; he was a good administrator and was respected on all sides. His most obvious failure, the break with the American colonies, was more the fault of his hardline colleagues and the king. Left to himself, North would probably have patched up some sort of compromise.
Still, May now clearly has the field to herself. And as she leaves the scene, it’s time to recall another under-appreciated figure, George Canning.
Canning became prime minister more than 190 years ago, in April 1827, succeeding Lord Liverpool, who had been forced to retire due to ill health. Canning had previously been foreign secretary and leader of the government in the House of Commons, but the right wing of the Tory Party refused to serve under him, forcing him to recruit some support from the Whig opposition.
Canning thus started the realignment that took place gradually over the following thirty years, eventually resulting in the formation of the Liberal Party. Its greatest leader, William Gladstone, had begun his career as a loyal Canningite.
But Canning did not live to see any of these later developments. He never fully recovered from a chill that he had caught at the Duke of York’s funeral, and on 8 August 1827 he died, after only 119 days in office.
And that, perversely, has been Canning’s claim to fame: until now, his has been the shortest tenure of any British prime minister.* But finally there is a challenger who threatens to take the title from him.
Boris Johnson will (barring some extraordinary event) be announced tonight as the winner of the ballot for Conservative Party leader, and tomorrow as a result will be invited to form a government. From there, 119 days will run to 19 November, and while it’s not impossible that Johnson will last that long, one would have to say the odds are heavily against him.
Already, like Canning, Johnson is faced with the refusal of several senior members of his party to serve under him. It’s not yet clear how far that revolt will spread, but unlike Canning, Johnson has nowhere else to go – there is no prospect of being able to pick off a few members of the Labour front bench as replacements.
The new leader’s fundamental problem will be that he has no majority in the House of Commons, and that any shift in policy terms that he makes will probably just make matters worse. In that respect he resembles his predecessor, who spent the last year immobilised as a result.
But Johnson is worse off because Brexit is his signature policy; it will be what he is there for. If he is defeated on it in the Commons – as seems a certainty – he will not be able to pass that off, as May did, as just a casual misfortune. He cannot help but treat it as a matter of confidence.
There are different ways this could play out. Johnson could get in first, and ask the Commons to vote for an early election before his policy has been tested. Alternatively, he could prorogue parliament and try to force Brexit through by default – a move that the majority has already taken steps to prevent.
It’s even possible that the queen could ask Johnson to test his parliamentary support before being sworn in, although that now seems unlikely. But this is the problem that was faced by Lord Bath, sometimes included at the head of the list of shortest-serving prime ministers; he accepted the king’s commission in 1746, only to hand it back after two days on discovering that he could not command a majority in the Commons.
One way or another, however, an election in October-November seems the most likely outcome. And unless Johnson can pull off an unlikely victory at the polls, that will probably see him fall short of the 119-day mark.
As with the North-May analogy, the comparison with Johnson is in many ways deeply unfair to Canning. Even if he had never become prime minister, Canning would be remembered as an important leader of the liberal forces within his party who did much to reorient British foreign policy. Johnson’s achievements are both thinner and less reputable.
But they share the property of being at the centre of a political realignment that may be just beginning, and may take the country in directions that cannot be predicted.
* Not the shortest period of office, since Rockingham’s second administration in 1782 (also ended by death) lasted only 97 days. But his first term in office had run for more than a year.