I was watching a 2008 BBC documentary about the role of Leader of the Opposition, which focused on how different politicians had performed in the role through history, going back to Churchill’s time between his shock 1945 defeat and his return to power in 1951. And then something dawned on me: I couldn’t remember the last time someone had lost the role of UK Prime Minister and stayed on as Leader of the Opposition. It took me almost 10 minutes of thinking followed by paging through a history book to figure it out.
Can you name who it was? (Answer after the jump)
It was James Callaghan, who lost to Thatcher in 1979 and stayed on for another 18 months. In the ensuing four decades, everyone else has announced upon leaving Number 10 that they would no longer serve as party leader – indeed most have quit Westminster entirely.
This represents a significant change from the days when Disraeli and Gladstone had political careers on either side of a revolving door, or even more recently when Churchill and Atlee swapped jobs twice (the latter stayed on as opposition leader until 1955) and when Harold Wilson went from Number 10 to Opposition Leader and back. Whether the change is good or bad can be debated, but I wonder why it occurred.
Perhaps as the role of PM has become more presidentialized, it feels like too much of a comedown to be Leader of the Opposition (even moreso a backbencher). Or perhaps voters are more impatient, feeling that once you’ve lost an election, you should move along and make room for the next bright young thing. I welcome any and all theories from UK politics watchers.