From British Prime Minister to Political Oblivion

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

16 thoughts on “From British Prime Minister to Political Oblivion”

  1. I forgot about Callaghan, I thought Harold Wilson was the answer.

    In the TV and now Social Media era, there is probably emphasis on the Party Leader for better or worse. There is soundbite politics, the tendency to oversimplify and personify issues.

    1. I think its for worse in that it makes voters believe something that simply isn't true in a Westminster system. I thought it was a sign of inappropriate US influence when in the 2010 election, they held US Presidential style debates and everyone said Clegg was charming, Clegg had won etc. when 99% of the country wouldn't see Clegg on their ballot, they would see their local MP who represented a party. When your party is in they can swap out he PM at any moment without consulting the voter or losing power.

      As long as I am complaining, I also hate it when Americans blame Presidents for not controlling Congress as if we had a Westminster system which we do not. LBJ was a master of the congress because he had massive majorities in both houses, not because he was better at politics than Obama who faced a Congress controlled by his opponents for most of his time in office.

      1. I think perhaps LBJ also had a huge advantage of personal influence over many of the individuals in Congress. He accrued a large bankroll of IOU's in all his years of Congressional leadership. He was therefore "better at politics" primarily because of his years of being in politics, and precisely at the center of it, rather any innate talent for it.

        1. "innate" is doing a lot of work here. LBJ was by all accounts frighteningly good at arm-twisting. As with most people who become very good at something, there's an element of natural talent cultivated by years of diligent practice.

          1. Well, first, view this series of photos: http://www.afterimagegallery.com/nytjohnson.htm
            Then, remember that he called his penis 'Jumbo'
            Then, there is the story of his calling in the French ambassador to lecture him while he was taking a shit, and the ambassador gave him whatever the Hell he wanted.
            This was a man with talent!

    2. Some stories are true, and some just ought to be true.. but this one has been told by Tony Blair, so it must be right. Right after his defeat, Churchill went in to the trough urinal in the House of Commons, and there was Atlee. Churchill went way down to the end, at which point Atlee said, "Shy, Winston?" and Churchill said, "Clement, in my experience if you see something which is large and works well, you try and nationalize it".
      Atlee's quotes are not as good as Churchill's. He is remembered for: "I just love Chinese food. My favourite dish is number 27."

  2. Interesting question. In the United States, the last time the loser of a Presidential election was renominated was when Adlai Stevenson was nominated in both 1952 and 1956. The latter nomination was at least partly due to the fact that no other candidates entered the race until quite late because Dwight Eisenhower was viewed as pretty close to unbeatable. Before that, Thomas E. Dewey was nominated in both 1944 and 1948. Perhaps that's because in the 1944 run he came closer than anyone else to beating Franklin Roosevelt. Before that, William Jennings Bryan was nominated three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1908, losing the general election each time. Unless I've missed something, with only one exception, people who lost the general election and been renominated have lost the general election again. That exception is John Quincy Adams, who lost to James Monroe (the incumbent President) in 1820, but won in 1824 as the result of a vote in the House of Representatives. (Adams got 31% of the vote, behind Andrew Jackson, who got 41% of the vote, but no one garnered an absolute majority of the electoral college so the House of Representatives got to select the President.)

    In the United States, a big part of the issue is that nominating someone who has previously lost an election doesn't seem like a good bet, and if you don't count John Quincy Adams, it's proved to be a bad bet in practice. The British Prime Minister is not selected by the majority party rather than directly by the voters, but we could see similar dynamics in Britain to the extent that voters their base their vote for MP on who the Prime Minister will be if the MP's party gets a majority.

    1. Richard Nixon lost in 1960 and was renominated and won in 1968 and 1972.

      That said, I can see MPs following your reasoning — i.e., this guy/gal just led us to defeat, why keep him as leader? Ted Heath wanted to stay on longer than he was able to because his party felt he would never be a winner again. This is Presidential analogizing, which doesn't make strict sense in a Westminster system where people vote for a party and not a single individual….but as I said in the OP, PMs have become more presidential in how they see themselves and probably as well in how they are viewed by voters and fellow MPs.

      1. The Nixon story, fwiw, is a little bit different, because he did leave the public eye for a while. He ran for governor of california and lost, and uttered the famous "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more" line. And then pretty much laid low until the Goldwater wing of the party had flamed out. His return was also fairly low-key and his first win infinitesimal.

        But even the notion of president as party leader is pretty much gone in the US now…

        1. Wait, the Goldwater wing of the party flamed out? Are you posting from the future? Tell us more!

          (In seriousness, though, Nixon certainly benefited from not having taken a side on the CRA of 1964 and the VRA of 1965. This allowed him to Republicans on both sides of that divide).

      2. And of course Nixon spent the years between 1964 and 1968, especially 1966, collecting IOUs across the country. I do not keep up with current politics enough to know who in either party may be collecting chits today.

        1. Paul Ryan looks like he might be positioning himself for some time away from official politics. Possibly to avoid a time of "no good choices" in the House.

  3. Finance may have played a role in the past. Only in 1991 did civil service reform legislation substantially increase the PM's pension (to immediate half pay for life). At some point, former PMs started writing memoirs and speaking at private meetings for substantial fees.

    Conversely, until the Reform Acts most PMs should have been landed aristocrats who ruled the country as a quasi-hobby; except for the occasional prole like Gladstone or Disraeli.

    [Harry Truman had no pension in 1952.]

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