By Larres, Klaus
History Today , Vol. 56, No. 12
EVER SINCE TONY BLAIR, nearly two years ago, became a lame-duck prime minister, by announcing that he would not seek a fourth term in office and would give his successor plenty of time to settle in, speculation about the date of his retirement has dominated the headlines. A dramatic crisis meeting with Gordon Brown, and a rhetorically clever speech at the Labour party conference in September, may have saved Blair from being pushed out by his own people for the time being, but the saga is bound to continue. Blair seems to have overstayed his welcome, both with the British public at large and with his own party. Yet he wants to stay in office and fulfil his mission as he sees it; it's hard to give up power voluntarily.
Blair has become a prime example of the difficulty leaders have in relinquishing office and retiring gracefully at the height of their reputation and influence. In recent British history, only Harold Wilson succeeded in retiring at a time of his own choosing, announcing his resignation as prime minister and leader of the Labour party on March 16th, 1976, less than two years after his election victory of October 1974. By that time he was probably already aware of the insidious onset of Alzheimer's disease.
Most British prime ministers since the Second World War have left office abruptly, albeit for a variety of reasons. Several were given no choice but to resign after failing to win the endorsement of the electorate. Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan and John Major suffered this fate and all lost the leadership of their party soon afterwards. Clement Attlee, however, remained Labour leader until December 1955 despite losing power in the general election of October 1951. After the ill-fated Suez invasion of late 1956 there was very little Anthony Eden could do to continue as prime minister and leader of the Conservative party; the electorate, his own party and not least the American government regarded his continuation in office as intolerable. Harold Macmillan resigned in a fit of depression on October 18th, 1963, in the aftermath of the damaging Profumo affair that had seen his popularity reach rock-bottom, and in the mistaken belief that he was suffering from a fatal illness--a decision he would regret thereafter.
Two of Britain's foremost twentieth-century prime ministers, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, managed to hang on to power for a number of years despite clear signs that their own party and the country at large were demanding a change of leadership. Both used prevaricating tactics not dissimilar to those that Tony Blair has begun to employ.
A groundswell of opinion against Thatcher first emerged within the parliamentary Conservative party in 1988 following a speech she gave at Bruges opposing closer economic ties with Europe. The planned introduction of the highly unpopular poll tax added to her difficulties, but she survived a leadership challenge from a 'stalking horse' opponent, Anthony Meyer, in November 1989--the 'Iron Lady' was not a leader who could easily be pushed aside. A year later, in October 1990, Geoffrey Howe abruptly resigned as deputy prime minister and Leader of the House in protest against her anti-European policies. His devastatingly effective resignation speech undermined Thatcher's remaining credibility within her party, and in November she faced another leadership challenge, this time from former defence secretary Michael Heseltine. She received far fewer votes than expected and was persuaded, with great difficulty, not to contest the second round of voting. After almost two years, her fight to hang on to power had come to an end.
Winston Churchill did even better. He managed to lead the Conservative party for ten more years after the first calls for his resignation were heard in the wake of his defeat in the general election of 1945; a unique achievement. After the British electorate voted overwhelmingly for Clement Attlee's Labour party in 1945, Churchill sank into a deep depression and sought refuge by socializing with friends and painting landscapes in the south of France and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. …