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Britain's post-war prime ministers ranked by politics experts

Britain's post-war prime ministers ranked by politics experts

David Cameron has been rated one of the worst performing post-war prime ministers in a poll of academics specialising in British politics and contemporary British history.

Nearly 90 per cent of those polled cited the EU referendum as Cameron’s greatest failure – with one claiming it was the greatest defeat of any prime minister “since Lord North lost America”.

Only Sir Anthony Eden and Sir Alec Douglas-Home were ranked lower than Cameron in the list of 13 prime ministers who have served since 1945.

The survey of UK-based academics specialising in post-1945 British history or British politics was carried out by Professor Kevin Theakston from the University of Leeds and Mark Gill of independent research company Woodnewton Associates.

Professor Theakston said: “For all his achievements as a successful coalition prime minister, David Cameron’s reputation and place in history seems destined to be defined by Brexit and his calling and losing the referendum.

“Academic opinion, as reflected in our survey, is currently pretty damning. But reputations can wax and wane as subsequent events, the passage of time and new evidence change perspectives.

“Depending on how Brexit works out, future historians and political scientists may come to a different verdict on Mr Cameron’s premiership and his place in the league table of prime ministers.”

Prof Theakston and Mr Gill conducted similar polls in 2004 and 2010. This is the first to include David Cameron as leader, but it excludes Theresa May.

Respondents were asked to rate the performance of each prime minister during their tenure in Number 10 on a scale of 0-10, with 10 representing the top score of ‘highly successful’.

As in previous surveys, Labour’s Clement Attlee was rated as the most successful prime minister with a mean rating of 8.5. He was followed by Margaret Thatcher, who received a score of 7.2, and Tony Blair, who received 6.7.

Sir Anthony Eden at 2.4 (destroyed by the Suez crisis) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home at 3.8 (PM for only a year) languish at the bottom of the prime-ministerial league table, as in the previous surveys.

They are now joined by David Cameron on 4.0, who is rated as less successful than Gordon Brown, on 4.6.

86 per cent of the academics who answered the follow-on question asking “what do you consider to be the single greatest failure of David Cameron as prime minister?” cited the EU Referendum.

Churchill receives a rating of 5.4, placing him ‘mid-table’ position, as these evaluations are based on his 1950s administration only, rather than his leadership during WWII.

And despite the on-going controversy of the Iraq War, Tony Blair’s position as the third highest-rated post-war premier remains solid.

But reputations can go up as well as down; John Major’s rating, for example, has steadily improved since 2004 (3.7), to 4.6 in 2010 and now in 2016 to 5.5, placing him in the top half of the league table.

As well as giving an overall score for Cameron’s time in office, the academics were asked to rate his two terms separately.

As leader of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition from 2010-2015, he received a rating of 5.6, which would put him on a par with John Major and in the top half of the league table.

But when scoring him for the second term - as leader of the Conservative majority government from 2015-2016 - ratings plunged to 2.1.

“This would place him at the bottom of the league table – as a worse prime minster than Anthony Eden, long seen as the biggest post-war failure in Number 10,” said Professor Theakston.

Table 1: The League table of post-war prime ministers

Ranking

Mean score

Prime Minister

1

8.5

Clement Attlee (Labour: 1945-51)

2

7.2

Margaret Thatcher (Conservative: 1979-90)

3

6.7

Tony Blair (Labour: 1997-2007)

4

6.4

Harold Macmillan (Conservative: 1957-63)

5

6.3

Harold Wilson (Labour: 1964-70 and 1974-76)

6

5.5

John Major  (Conservative: 1990-97)

7

5.4

Winston Churchill (Conservative: 1951-55)

8

5.1

James Callaghan (Labour: 1976-79)

9

4.8

Edward Heath (Conservative: 1970-74)

10

4.6

Gordon Brown (Labour: 2007-10)

11

4.0

David Cameron (Conservative: 2010-16)

12

3.8

Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative: 1963-64)

13

2.4

Anthony Eden (Conservative: 1955-57)

Table 2 (below) provides a summary of how the last five UK prime ministers are rated in terms of their positive or negative impact on the following areas: British society, British economy, foreign policy/Britain’s role in the world, their own political party, and British democracy.

The “net score” in the table indicates the proportion rating each prime minister’s performance as “positive” minus those who say “negative”.

David Cameron is the only one of these prime ministers to be rated negatively, on balance, across all five areas. He scored particularly badly in in terms of his impact on Britain’s “foreign policy / role in the world” (-69) and on “British democracy / constitution” (-57).

Table 2           

Q) To what extent do you think each prime minister had a positive or negative impact on…

Net score shown (positive impact minus negative impact)

British society

British economy

Foreign policy / Britain’s role in the world

Their own political party

British democracy / constitution

Margaret Thatcher

-79

-3

+31

-19

-55

John   Major

-4

+12

+12

-42

-16

Tony    Blair

+65

+47

-56

-23

+45

Gordon Brown

+19

+34

+16

-55

+4

David Cameron

-31

-26

-69

-17

-57

Further information

  • To interview Professor Kevin Theakston please contact Sophie Freeman in the University of Leeds press office on 0113 343 8059 or email s.j.freeman@leeds.ac.uk
  • The research was conducted in September 2016 by the University of Leeds and independent research company Woodnewton Associates with UK-based academics specialising in post-1945 British politics or history. The sample was developed by Professor Theakston. In total, 82 academics completed the online survey.

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