Book Review: The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

Steve Richards’s writing is detailed, concise and accessible: perfect qualities mixed into his book on leadership from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson. Defined as the “television age” of Prime Ministers, Richards looks at the qualities needed to lead a country in a job that is notorious for failure. It is ideal for anyone looking to understand how we have ended up where we are today, as well as the real, though often flawed, people who have led Britain.

Looking through the ten Prime Ministers, Richards identifies common themes and criteria on which to judge these individuals. These broad ideas are then expertly woven into specific examples that highlight the author’s years of experience in the world of politics. One of the most engaging criteria he notes is the concept of being a “political teacher” with the ability to carry the public on the path the government is pursuing. Richards points to Thatcher as a prime example of this, with a specialist ability to simplify complex themes into accessible lessons, even where they may not be logically sound. An interesting example of this is Thatcher referencing her father’s grocery shop in Grantham; she argued that he could not spend more than he earned, and so neither should the country. Of course, Richards argues, the state is an entirely different unit in comparison to a shop, but Thatcher’s ability to create a simple story captivated the public.

The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson paperback cover. (Credit: via Waterstones)

Naturally, there are those figures who do not possess these key skills. Continuing the idea of the political teacher, Richards notes that Theresa May was reluctant to give a running commentary on Brexit, preferring instead to give a number of high profile speeches but in doing so, allowing others to take control of the narrative in the interim. This, he posits, is the result of applying the same tactics as were deployed in her successful period in the Home Office: relying on familiar tactics in a job that was not designed to accommodate them.

Richards expands more widely and engagingly on this theme, tracing Prime Ministers’ actions and instincts – both positive and negative – back to their personal and political upbringings. For the 1970s leaders who grew up with the Great Depression, fear of unemployment was almost crippling and coloured their dealings with trade unions. Enter Margaret Thatcher – free of such inhibitions – and tactics changed markedly. Of course, these were not the only factors, but they have helped Richards develop a nuanced picture of our Prime Ministers.

This is why the stories are so compelling: they give a rich picture that goes beneath the popular myths: Wilson’s exiting office on his own terms, Thatcher’s luck in facing a fractured Labour Party in 1983, Brown’s fear of being a “tail-end Charlie” realised in 2010. Being Prime Minister is exposed as being contingent on a huge number of factors, many out of the individual’s control, for example the media, which Richard paints as having almost imprisoned Blair and Brown in their desperation to keep the newspapers of traditionally Conservative Middle England on their side. Prime Ministers are too often seen as all powerful, whereas Richards expertly outlines the complicated maze each must navigate to achieve their aims.

Overall, these detailed accounts of leaders’ personalities and careers show that they are never adequately classified by the binary good or bad metric, as so many seem to picture them. These are characters with huge expertise, experience and a human side that is often lost in popular memory. Having known or interviewed the figures he writes about, Richards is uniquely placed to track the paths to power of the ‘modern’ Prime Ministers, and it shows.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

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