On the 20th of October 2022, Liz Truss announced her resignation as prime minister – a mere 45 days after assuming power, making her the shortest-serving PM in British history.
Yet history shows us a sub-year prime minister is nothing new, so in the wake of the Liz Truss resignation, it is time to look back upon the history of passing prime ministers.
Liz Truss (49 Days)
So it was that less than two months after becoming PM that Liz Truss resigned.
The resignation of Boris Johnson in July 2022 spawned a Conservative Party leadership election, in which Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was a favourite although initially failing to enter the top two candidates. Eventually, Truss won the exhaustive ballot, beating former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak although notably saw far fewer votes than the 2019 leadership election and with Truss getting a lower winning percentage (57%) compared to Boris Johnson (66%). Only 50 MPs had her as their first choice.
Truss immediately faced an economic crisis, one which BoJo had craftily avoided. Truss may well have cemented her legacy in her first few days, being the sitting PM during the death of the country’s longest serving monarch: Queen Elizabeth II. It was during this era that she faced accusations – not too dissimilar to Theresa May – of being awkward and robotic.
Shit hit the fan and quickly. Truss formed an unpopular Cabinet and things plummeted, with Truss driving her reputation to subterranean levels. Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng launched an extremely controversial mini-budget, which arguably makes Kwasi the architect of Liz’s downfall. After backlash from Opposition members, the public, and even members of her own party, Liz took a massive U-turn, which “sapped her of authority,” as the BBC put it. Such a misstep in a time of crisis saw the intervention of monetary organisations, such as the Bank of England, whilst the electorate lost all confidence and faith in the government.
Truss subsequently threw her Chancellor, who she promised to work with (yet claimed she did not agree to the mini-budget) under a metaphorical bus. Jeremy Hunt became the new Chancellor and scrubbed away any remaining elements of the budget but the damage was done. Hunt still seemed to not be reading from the same songbook as the PM, including comments over the security of the pension triple-lock.
The public declared a resignation whilst others wanted a general election. Even King Charles summed up the mood of the nation; upon meeting Liz Truss, he muttered: “Dear, oh dear.” Truss faced large-scale backlash from backbench MPs, who got the ball rolling on publicly asking for Truss’s head on a platter, for the lack of a better phrase.
The most vocal was senior MP Charles Walker, who gave an impassioned interview to the BBC: “To be perfectly honest, this whole affair is inexcusable…it is a pitiful reflection on the Conservative Parliamentary party at every level…This is an absolute disgrace…I think it’s a shambles and a disgrace. I think it is utterly appalling. I’m livid.” The backbencher looked weary and agitated recalling Truss’s shortcomings. Over a dozen backbenchers called for a resignation, with the 1922 Committee heavily involved in proceedings.
Despite Truss’s declaring: “I am a fighter, not a quitter,” Truss resigned at 13:30 the next day, saying in her resignation statement: “I recognise that I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party.”
She announced a speedy and brief leadership election, during which she would stay on. Despite this brief extension, she will remain the shortest serving PM of all time in an embarrassing farce – nearly a comedy of errors had it been funny. Although she did herself seem amused and nearly laughter in her resignation, scoffing at her own failure.
She is certainly the Anthony Eden, Neville Chamberlain, and Lord North of her era. She will probably forever go down as the worst of all time, which is not me using recently bias and trying to slander her but she was not only the shortest but in that time, managing to cause such upheaval, hatred, and turmoil in such time: devaluing the pound, rattling through Cabinet ministers, and demonstrating inept social skills.
Still, she lasted longer than the short-serving president William Henry Harrison, who died 30 days after assuming office.
George Canning (119 Days)
George Canning worked his way up the political system, including a lengthy stint as Foreign Secretary before brief Chancellor before elevated to prime minister.
PM was quite the destination for Canning – a man who had previous resigned from Parliament multiple times and previously refused a Cabinet position. Not that it really mattered much as Canning’s achievements can be written on a Post-it Note, with Canning given the arduous task of forming a cross-party government.
See, Canning became PM under George IV in April 1827, assuming power from the 2nd Earl of Liverpool, Robert Jenkinson of whom George was the right-hand man. In hindsight, his choice is odd considering the more popular names not chosen: the Duke of Wellington, Sir Arthur Wellesley and Sir Robert Peel – both of whom subsequently became the First Lord of the Treasury (the then-name for the prime minister).
The Tory Party was divided at the time, with the aforementioned future PMs refusing to work with Canning. Canning thus had to form a coalition government with Whigs. The issues between the sides became clear, such as debate over parliamentary reform (which first came five years later under Earl Grey and the Great Reform Act 1832). The PM never quite resolved the tensions before his passing from tuberculosis four months into his premiership.
He now has a dedicated statue in Parliament Square and is buried in Westminster.
The Viscount Goderich (144 Days)
George Canning’s successor lasted longer…25 days longer at nearly five months.
F.J. Robinson aka the Viscount of Goderich aka the 1st Earl of Ripon may have more names than Puff Daddy but was out of the door as PM by the time his list of names could be reeled off.
After Canning’s death, Robinson failed in holding together the Tory and Whigs in the coalition government. Any attempts to appease both sides failed to do so and the government seemed doomed to fail, stagnating and without progress until governmental collapse into the news year.
The issues were exacerbated by ill health of both Robinson and his wife.
In January, the King, George IV, who still had great power, ordered the resignation of Robinson who was said to have left the confrontation in tears. The monarch described the minister as “a damned, snivelling, blubbering blockhead.”
He lasted all of 144 days.
Goderich still served in the high office of subsequent PMs Lord Grey and Robert Peel.
Interestingly, historian Richard Helmstadter notes that he had been “a Pittite, a Tory, a Canningite, a Whig, a Stanleyite, a Conservative, and a Peelite. Between 1818 and 1846 he was a member of every government except Wellington’s and Melbourne‘s.” Another fun fact is that his son was conceived at No. 11 Downing Street, born at No. 10. He also never stood before Parliament, a rarity in British history.
Bonar Law (211 Days)
When becoming Conservative Party leader (first in the House of Commons in 1911 and then officially in 1916), he became the first leader to not hold the PM office. That remained by the time he reliquished the position due to ill health.
Despite such ill health, he was later called to be PM by George V. Law refused as he was not the Tory leader but was eventually elected and came into power. All of this came about due to growing dissatisfaction by the Tories in the Conservative-Liberal coalition led by David Lloyd George after the sale of honours scandal and disagreement over British involvement in territory (Ireland, India, Soviet Russia).
Tory backbenchers voted to end the coalition and go independent. Under Law, a general election was called and the Tories gained an overall majority as the liberals fell into the third-place party, which they have never really bounced back from.
Bonar Law’s election win is more than most reigning in such a short time could achieve. He also had to diplomatically work out war debts with the USA, with Chancellor Stanley Baldwin announcing £40 million a year to the US without Cabinet consultation.
Law was still seriously ill however. Throat cancer forced his resignation in May 1923. He would die half a year later. He still remains the only Canadian to be British PM.
The Duke of Devonshire (225 Days)
The great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of King Charles III, William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire lasted seven months in office, yet by choice.
The Whig Duke was reluctant to take power but did so after appointed by George II in 1783 due to the Duke of Newcastle’s negatively-viewed premiership. Some say Cavendish wished for a brief time as PM before resigning at the end of the next parliamentary session, once his job had been done.
He established greater home defense during the Seven Years’ War under the Militia Act.
Cavendish left office shortly after gaining it, with issues with the King and the controversial killing of Admiral John Byng.
Cavendish retained a high-profile governmental position for a few years afterwards. When dying aged 44, he became – as he still is – the shortest-lived prime minister in British history.
The Earl of Shelburne (266 Days)
The man before Cavendish lasted just a little longer with the Earl of Shelburne lasting 266 days.
In March 1782, William Petty worked under PM Lord Rockingham. When Rockingham died less than six months later, Shelburne (Petty) took office.
Things started badly with significant politicians, even those familiar today in Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke resigning in protest.
Shelburne had the appeasement of tow major nations on his plate when PM in both France (unsuccessful considering the Napoleonic Wars of the next few decades) and the newly-created USA. The latter is more important, with historians seeing Petty’s US offers extremely generous with a British desire for a new trading ground in America. He effectively greatly the Peace of Paris agreement to end the American War of Independence.
It was a coalition government that fell Shelburne, with pressure from Opposition leader Tory Lord North provoking resignation. GOV.UK notes: “His reformist inclinations, political independence and vituperative speeches certainly made him a difficult colleague, with more appeal to posterity than to his contemporary politicians.”
His Chancellor Pitt the Younger assumed the role of prime minister, lasting 17 years (about 25x longer than the Earl).
The Earl of Bute (317 Days)
John Stuart, the Earl of Bute craftily manoeuvred his way into power, both becoming a monarch favourite (George III) and pulling the strings behind the resignation of prominent figures Pitt the Elder and the Duke of Newcastle.
Bute’s biggest contribution was the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 to conclude the Seven Years’ War.
Despite the significance of deciding a war’s end, Bute was not long for this office. Stuart faced hostility and controversy for various reasons including for being Scottish even in a post-1707 England, accusations of an affair with the Queen Mother, and the Stuarts reputation tarnished after involvement in the Jacobite Rising.
Perhaps most chaotic were his taxes post-Seven Year’s War. Taxes may seem sensible in a post-war nation to increase government purchasing power by adding addition costs to popular produce. A 1763 Cider Tax threw the public over the edge. The Victorian Web blog notes: “Riots broke out and there were hangings of effigies of Bute – mainly boots. Politicians were stoned in the streets and the mob smashed the windows in Bute’s house.”
His public image was further ruined by satirical journalist John Wilkes (no relation to Abe Lincoln’s assassin), with over 400 broadsheet and prints printed that had a negative output on the PM. Wilkes own hatred apparently stemmed from being ousted from the Hellfire Club (no, not that one), which the Earl was in.
Bute may have been the King’s favourite but he was not immune from public backlash which forced his resignation. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography noted: “physically ill, weary of politics and politicians, and unnerved by the savage attacks against him, Bute resigned from office, and recommended George Grenville as his successor. The king reluctantly accepted the decision but, retaining confidence in his favourite, continued to seek Bute’s advice on important political matters over the next few years.”
In the book Lord Bute – Essays in Reinterpretation, Karl Schweizer argues that the taxes imposed and the US backlash is what led to the American Revolution, which is surely something for his legacy.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home (363 Days)
And now time for something more modern – Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the last PM to serve whilst being a member of the House of Lords, serving as PM for less than a year from 1963-1964.
In 1963, Harold MacMillan stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party and PM, citing ill health – in actuality benign prostate cancer that was overexaggerated, meaning he could have continued just fine. Home was considered a “fourth hypothetical candidate”, as noted in The Times. Home revoked his position in the Lords utilising the Tony Benn-campaigned Peerage Act. In an unprecedented turn of events, ADH became PM despite, for twenty days, not sitting in the Lords or Commons, shoved into a by-election in the safe Scottish Unionist (a party affiliated with the Conservatives) seat of Kinross and Western Perthshire.
ADH oversaw events such as the assassination of JFK and a stifled kidnapping attempt
The October 15th 1964 general election saw Douglas-Home lose, with Labour emerging victorious, gaining a majority and with leader Harold Wilson forming a government.
Why? Labour rang out the issues with Hume’s leadership. Wilson accused ADH of being too aristocratic and thus out-of-touch with the public. It is true that the stiffness of his media appearances was trumped by Wilson who carved out a trusted and endearing public image with his northern tones and omnipresent pipe.
He had also caused inter-party trouble with his Resale Prices Bill, which dropped manufacturers the ability to dictate their product’s pricing. He also was tough on trade unions, whilst Wilson was more willing to work for the people, highlighted by a commitment to his supertax, which, when in power, was eventually as high as 95%. The Conservatives too had issues with the Profumo Affair not a distant memory, losing the party public confidence and a personal disconnect with US president Lyndon B. Johnson.
It really came down to charisma however which Harold Wilson had in abundance, ending Home’s time in office after 363 days. His 1964 election loss was the last time a Conservative PM loss an election until 1997.
The bulk of the aforementioned short-lived PMs come from the earlier days of the position, a time when the monarch, parties, and world events caused greater damage to a reputation with short-term failures leading to resignations and sackings.
Today, although premierships are likely shorter than average, there tend to be less sub-year leaders. That said, Liz Truss has opened the door and set a precedent that just goes to highlight how short premierships are not just a sign of our past.