Charles James Fox (Whig, 1783–1806)

Giants and pygmies

Some stop-gap leaders of the opposition were never intended to be potential prime ministers


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of the leaders of the opposition here profiled, George Tierney, described the role as being “to oppose everything, and propose nothing — and to turn out the government”. In this survey, Nigel Fletcher, who co-founded the think tank Centre for Opposition Studies, gives us 42 sketches of the nearly-men (and two nearly-women) of British politics, from Charles James Fox to Jeremy Corbyn.

The Not Quite Prime Ministers: Leaders of the Opposition 1783–2020, Nigel Fletcher (Biteback, £20)

Each sketch is concise, pithy, enlightening and witty. As you might expect, Fletcher endorses the “inherent value” of the role. “Whether genuine contenders or dutiful placeholders, all of them performed an important democratic function simply by doing the job.”

Fletcher has included only those who failed to make it to Downing Street as prime minister. Some were giants who provoke speculation as to what their premierships might have been like; others were comparative pygmies, but Fletcher, in his cheery way, usually finds something positive to say about them. For the 19th century, selection is complicated by there often being leaders of the opposition in the House of Commons and the Lords at the same time.

Charles James Fox (Whig, 1783–1806) was blocked from becoming prime minister by George III, who hated him. George Ponsonby (Whig, 1808–17) was dismissed as a mediocrity but managed to remain in place for almost a decade; and his successor George Tierney (Whig, 1818–21) “had a pragmatic and nuanced understanding of what it took to oppose effectively, and in this he was perhaps ahead of his time”.

Sir William Harcourt (Liberal leader in the Commons, 1895–98) was a petulant bully who “could have made it to the very top had he been more personable”, but George Lansbury (Labour leader, 1931–35), who was widely considered to be loveable, nonetheless went against the grain of his party by remaining a steadfast radical and pacifist.

Some were not thrustingly ambitious at all but content just to serve dutifully. Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, was Whig Leader of the Opposition in the Lords three times over four decades and had several opportunities to become prime minister, but, as his obituarist in The Times put it, “his ambition was completely under the control of his judgement”. John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley (Liberal leader in the Lords, 1891–92 and 1897–1902) served in every Liberal administration from 1852 to 1895, latterly as Foreign Secretary. His obituarist observed that “if he made no great successes, he knew how to avoid great failures”, which Fletcher considers “a fitting epitaph for any politician, particularly in relation to the job of opposition”. Spencer Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington (Liberal, Commons, 1875–80) refused to become prime minister after winning the 1880 general election, deferring to Gladstone instead, and was subsequently given the chance to head a coalition government on two occasions but again refused.

Jeremy Corbyn

The second world war is intriguing because from May 1940 onwards both major parties served in the National Government that had been in power since the 1936 general election. Attlee could hardly continue as Leader of the Opposition in 1940 when he became Deputy Prime Minister, so that task fell consecutively to three solid Labour chaps, Hastings Lee-Smith, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and Arthur Greenwood, who asked questions of the government in the House but drew no salary, whilst there was also, throughout this period, another claimant in Independent Labour’s James Maxton — who in order to ensure that “we are not on the Reichstag level”, saw his job as being “to fan the flames of discontent”.

In contrast, Hugh Gaitskell was “a highly consequential Labour leader, standing on the brink of power” and was “cut down in his prime”. By one measure he was an abject failure, however, since he had felt impelled “to stop that bastard Harold Wilson from becoming prime minister”.

Some stop-gap leaders of the opposition were never intended to be potential prime ministers. Robert Carr, as Shadow Chancellor, held the post for seven days in February 1975 whilst the Tories chose Mrs Thatcher as their leader (she was one of his junior ministers at the Treasury, having been demoted by Edward Heath).

Certainly, Neil Kinnock, William Hague and Michael Howard undertook programmes of modernisation that redounded to the benefit of Tony Blair and David Cameron, whereas by abolishing Labour’s electoral college system for electing the leader in 2015, Ed Miliband unwittingly ushered in the disaster that was Jeremy Corbyn. “Sometimes it is hard to convince people why it matters who the leader of the opposition is,” says Fletcher. “After Jeremy Corbyn, it should be obvious.”

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