Election sidelight

The gutter press (well, the Daily Telegraph: so the gutter in question is presumably attached firmly to the eaves of a rather nice vicarage somewhere in Buckinghamshire) has made much of the fact that Gordon Brown is an “unelected prime minister” – i.e. he hasn’t yet fought and won a general election as party leader. The fact that he’s attempting to do so now should have answered that point – it hasn’t – but it’s interesting to note that this isn’t exactly a rarity in British politics.

Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, came into Number 10 in what you might imagine was the usual way: he was the leader of a party that won a majority in a general election. But, oddly, this makes Blair a member of a rather small and exclusive club, with only four other members since the start of the 20th century. Almost every British prime minister – of whatever party – since the death of Queen Victoria has not been elected into the office. The only exceptions have been Clement Attlee, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and perpetual pub quiz trivia answer Andrew Bonar Law. Everyone else – Churchill, Lloyd George, Sunny Jim Callaghan, Supermac, Harold Wilson, Baillie Vass – got the metaphorical keys to Number 10 because the PM ahead of them resigned, retired or was eased out.

It’s true that quite a few – Eden and Baldwin, to name two – followed their accession to power by calling an election fairly quickly. Eden did so almost immediately. But others (Major, to take one recent example) hung on as long as he possibly could in office.

How does this reflect other countries’ histories? Not so much with presidents, who are a special case, but with prime ministers or chancellors?

4 thoughts on “Election sidelight

  1. The FRG has had eight postwar chancellors, of whom four gained the office through the resignation of/vote of no confidence in their predecessor: Erhard, following Adenauer, Kiesinger, following Erhard, Schmidt, following Brandt, and Kohl, following Schmidt. That makes four of five between 1963 and 1982, but Schröder and Merkel both won elections as party leaders after reunification (counting 2005 as Merkel defeating Schröder, even though the election was preceded by a vote of no confidence and the result was a grand coalition).

    Of those four that moved into the Kanzlerbungalow in Bonn without winning an election, only Kiesinger failed to win the next election (surprising, I know), though if West Germany had anything like the current British system, there’s no way Erhard would have survived in 1965 and Schmidt would have been in trouble in 1976.

  2. Technically, this could happen in the Netherlands as well, if the prime minister’s party were to pull out of the governing coalition. This rarely happens because it’s normally the largest party that provides the PM. Whenever a coalition collapses — which does happen fairly frequently — elections usually happen within a few weeks.

  3. Since the start of the 20th century Sweden has had 26 prime ministers, of which only five (Edén 1917, Hansson 1932, Fälldin 1976, Bildt 1991, Reinfeldt 2006) first came into office by winning an election. All others first became PMs after the deaths or resignations of their predecessors.

    If the Social Democrats win the election in September (as the polls currently indicate they will) it will be the first time in almost eighty years that a Social Democratic PM first comes into office by winning an election.

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