Who Will Succeed David Cameron? A Brief History of Takeover Prime Ministers



David Cameron will not be Prime Minister by October, and is going even earlier than I predicted. So what does the past tell us about who might take over as Prime Minister, and how they might fare? Who, out of these runners and riders, will be next as First Lord of the Treasury?

There’s generally two ways you can become Prime Minister in the UK through (i) winning a General Election (ii) winning a party leadership election (or in the pre 1965 Conservative party being ‘chosen’) to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see this great infographic here.[1]

Whoever sits in 10 Downing Street after David Cameron will be what I’m calling a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i). As the UK Cabinet Manual states:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor (p.15).

Although often seen as ‘lame ducks’ or less legitimate, remember both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, number 1 and number 2 respectively in the highest rated Prime Ministers of the 20th century, got to 10 Downing Street without winning an election.

Here’s a table looking at the last six Post-war ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers that sets out who they took over from, their previous position before Prime Minister, and- the all-important question-whether they went on to win the next election.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1955-2010

Prime Minister Position Took Over From Won or Lost
Gordon Brown Chancellor Tony Blair in 1997 Lost 2010 (narrow loss?)
John Major Chancellor Margaret Thatcher in 1990 Won 1992 (narrow win)
James Callaghan Foreign Secretary Harold Wilson in 1975 Lost 1979 (medium loss)
Alec Douglas-Home Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan in 1963 Lost 1964 (narrow loss)
Harold Macmillan Chancellor Anthony Eden in 1957 Won 1959 (increased majority)
Anthony Eden Foreign Secretary Winton Churchill in 1955 Won 1955 (increased majority)


Interestingly, of the 12 Post-war Prime Ministers almost half were actually takeovers. So how did these takeovers do in the General Elections that followed? It seems there are exactly even chances of winning or losing, as 3 takeovers lost their elections and three won, though drilling down it can be close. John Major had a very narrow win in 1992 and Alec Douglas-Home a surprisingly narrow loss in 1964. What the table doesn’t show is the danger in stepping into Downing Street without an election, which explains why the other 50 % failed to win. Takeover is a risky business even in tranquil times, as this great paper shows.

In terms of who does the taking over now, a superficial look at the table offers good news for Theresa May and Michael Gove  and bad news for Boris Johnson. All the takeovers Post-War were already holders of ‘great offices of state’. In fact, 3 were Chancellors and 3 were Foreign Secretaries. This makes sense as it is senior politicians who will have the resources, the reputation and, most importantly, the support in the party to win a leadership election.

The past is not, of course, always a good guide to the future, especially in a Brexit-ing Britain. To be Conservative leader you must make it through a particular bottleneck, as two potential leaders must emerge from the votes of the Conservative MPs for a run-off with the rest of the party. This morning it is very, very unlikely that the next leader will be the (probably) soon to be ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond is, as far as we know, not interested.

The closest ‘great offices’ are Theresa May in the Home Office, whose chances have been talked up until yesterday, and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who has ruled himself out repeatedly (though so did his hero Lyndon Johnson, many times). However, Boris Johnson, who has no great office but was Mayor of London for eight years, will have a large amount of political capital and has powerfully bolstered his reputation. A Brexit Johnson versus a Eurosceptic May run-off looks likely  [N.B. update-no it doesn’t].

Gauging how ‘successful’ the takeover leaders were is more tricky-the whole question of whether and how a Prime Minister ‘succeeds’ depends on how you measure it. Half of the leaders achieved the most basic aim of winning an election and a number of them not only won but also increased their majority. Beyond this, some are widely regarded as having failed amid crisis, splits and defeats, especially John Major and Gordon Brown. Not all takeovers are failures or lame ducks. Three of the leaders came number 4, 7 and 8 in the academic survey of the top ten Post-War Prime Ministers and Harold Macmillan in particular is widely regarded as a highly capable and astute Prime Minister.


Whoever takes over from Cameron will face deep problems. He or she will be in charge of a ruptured party, and a worrying in-tray of pressing problems. Being prime Minister of Brexit Britain will mean trying to hold together a divided country and Dis-united Kingdom, not to mention overseeing a hugely complex negotiation process. Whoever takes over will need a very healthy dose of fortune and skill to be a Macmillan rather than a Brown.


[1] There are other ways but it all gets a bit complicated and constitutional see p 15 of the Cabinet Manual 2.18-2.19. If a government falls and an opposition can muster up a majority then an opposition leader could become Prime Minister without an election (but would probably want to call a General Election soon after). The Cabinet Manual hedges its bets by saying ‘The Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons’.


Political Leadership – Politics and Governance Special Issue edited by Mark Bennister


Political Leadership – Politics and Governance Special Issue edited by Mark Bennister
Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics has edited a Special Issue of the peer reviewed journal Politics and Governance ‘New Approaches to Political Leadership’. Politics and Governance is an open access journal, freely available online. Dr Amelia Hadfield is one of the editors in chief of the journal.
The issue includes articles which engage with the core puzzles of political leadership and brings together many diverse theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of political leadership, a vibrant area of study currently in the midst of an academic renaissance. All articles can be accessed at http://www.cogitatiopress.com/ojs/index.php/politicsandgovernance/issue/view/45
Table of Contents
Editorial: New Approaches to Political Leadership Mark Bennister 1-4
1.       The (Unintended) Consequences of New Labour: Party Leadership vs Party Management in the British Labour Party Emmanuelle Avril 5-14
2.       Assessing the Performance of UK Opposition Leaders: Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’ Patrick Diamond 15-24
3.       Deliberative Political Leaders: The Role of Policy Input in Political Leadership Jennifer Lees-Marshment 25-35
4.       Explaining Japan’s Revolving Door Premiership: Applying the Leadership Capital Index Tina Burrett 36-53
5.       Responsive to the People? Comparing the European Cognitive Maps of Dutch Political Leaders and their Followers Femke Van Esch, Rik Joosen and Sabine van Zuydam 54-67
6.       Between Potential, Performance and Prospect: Revisiting the Political Leadership of the EU Commission President Henriette Müller 68-79
7.       Missing Areas in the Bureaucratic Reputation Framework Moshe Maor 80-90
8.       Contingency and Political Action: The Role of Leadership in Endogenously Created Crises András Körösényi, Gábor Illés and Rudolf Metz 91-103
9.       Leadership in Precarious Contexts: Studying Political Leaders after the Global Financial Crisis Cristine de Clercy and Peter Ferguson 104-114
10.   Political Leadership in Parliament: The Role of Select Committee Chairs in the UK House of Commons Alexandra Kelso 115-126
11.   Leadership and Behavior in Humanitarian and Development Transnational Non-Governmental Organizations Margaret G Hermann and Christiane Pagé 127-137
12.   Cursus Honorum: Personal Background, Careers and Experience of Political Leaders in Democracy and Dictatorship—New Data and Analyses Alexander Baturo 138-157


Going, Going, Gone: How Safe is David Cameron?


The UK’s EU referendum has turned into a series of threats against Cameron himself. The weekend was dominated by swirling rumours about Conservative MPs plotting to remove their leader with talk of plots of 50 MPs, (metaphorical) ‘stabbing in the front’ and letters to the 1922 committee. This isn’t the first time Cameron has faced challenges to his position. So how safe is he now?

The rules for triggering an election for a Conservative party leader are clear. To ‘secure a confidence vote, 15% of Conservative Members of Parliament (“in receipt of the Conservative Whip”) must submit a request for such a vote, in writing, to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee’. This means 50 MPs need to sign a letter. There are 330 Conservative whipped MPs in the House of Commons. It is estimated that around 110 are definitely Brexit versus 128 MPs for Remain with the rest unknown. There are likely enough unhappy MPs to get 50 signatures on a letter.

How these numbers may translate into a leadership election is less clear. Being pro-Brexit may not automatically mean hostility to Cameron or wish for a disruptive change. In terms of the outcome ‘if the incumbent Leader wins the support of a simple majority in any such vote, they would remain Leader and no further vote could be called for a period of twelve months from the date of the ballot (Rule 6). However ‘if the Leader were to lose such a vote (again, on a simple majority basis) they must resign, and they may not stand in the leadership election which is then triggered (Rule 7)’. Winning needs a simple majority but it isn’t just about winning-the symbolism of having to face a leadership election is damaging enough. A Prime Minister under threat needs, of course, to win big.

So what hope can Cameron draw from the past for his future? How did his predecessors go? There is, of course, infinite variety in how Prime Ministers depart historically, though assassination is rare (only Spencer Percival in 1812) and ill health or fear of it a little less so (see Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1908 and Harold Macmillan in 1963).  This table below maps out how Cameron’s 7 predecessors departed, beginning with Edward Heath, who was Prime Minister around the time political parties began to exhibit their modern rebelliousness.


How Prime Ministers Departed 1974-2010


Prime Minister How left office Difficulties
Brown Lost General Election 2010
Blair Resigned 2007 Party divisions/attempted coup
Major Lost General Election 1997
Thatcher Resigned 1990 Party divisions/leadership challenge
Callaghan Lost General Election 1979
Wilson Resigned 1976 Party divisions over EEC?
Heath Lost General Election 1974

Looking across the last 7 Prime Ministers, 4 lost elections and 3 resigned or stepped down. So it seems elections are the most normal way to go. However, the 3 resignations are a little misleading. Thatcher resigned having won, but not won outright by the rules, in the first round of a leadership election in 1990. Tony Blair left office following party pressure and an abortive coup. Only Harold Wilson truly left at time of his own choosing, with his shock decision to step down in 1976 (having, incidentally just fought and won an EU referendum that fractured his party).

Moreover, all the recent leaders in the table, however they ultimately went, had their authority eroded by their own parties. Thatcher, Major (especially), Blair and Brown were all undermined by rebellion, abortive coups and plots. Part of the reason we face an EU referendum is because Cameron has led the most rebellious Parliament yet and Euro-sceptic Conservatives ‘made’ him do it.

If Cameron reflects on the fate of the last two Conservative Prime Ministers the picture looks even bleaker. Both leaders faced leadership contests while in office (worst of all for Cameron both elections were also, at least partially, triggered by Europe). Margaret Thatcher, the triple election winner, was severely damaged by a ‘stalking horse’ contest in 1989 then forced to step down in a fatal repeat leadership election 12 months later. In 1995 John Major too faced an election against John Redwood and, though he won it, the issue of Europe, and the deep division it caused, continued to erode what was left of his authority.


The lesson is that, win or lose, for a Prime Minister a leadership election is ultimately fatal. A leader can survive but any victory is short-lived: they may face another (Thatcher) or simply have fuelled the unhappiness and discord (Major). Cameron’s famous warning to his party not to ‘bang on’ about Europe wasn’t just good electoral politics. It was a pre-emptive act of self-preservation.

So is he safe? It appears probable Cameron will survive any attempt to topple him in the short-term in 2016. But he’s likely to face an increasingly fractious and unhappy party and the plots, rumours and rebellion will continue. So all bets are off for another go in 2017. Whatever the outcome, any attempted or actual confidence vote in the days, weeks or months after the referendum will be the beginning of the end for Cameron.