Because the curate’s egg was partly good and partly bad it was entirely spoilt. The same can be said of prime ministers. But what if it were possible to take all the good parts of old prime ministers and make one flawless one?
Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher’s brains. The left hemisphere would be Margaret Thatcher’s – that’s the analytical and logical side. Her decisiveness was legendary, partly because she knew exactly what she believed in: Thatcherism. As her speech writer Ferdinand Mount once explained it to me: “There was no spin. Just plonk. That was it… That lack of nuance was quite an advantage.”
The right hemisphere is Clement Attlee’s. It is the side associated with creativity, intuition and holistic thought – and thoughts don’t come much more holistic than his on the welfare state, from the cradle to the grave. It wasn’t so much his ideas that were impressive as the political skill with which he implemented them. His leadership style was all about consensus. And as an organiser of the machinery of government he was without equal.
Would the two sides of the brain work together? Perhaps. Margaret Thatcher once said of Attlee: “I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. He was all substance and no show.”
Tony Blair’s smile. It was slightly wonky, thanks to a slight chip on one of his front teeth, a schoolboy cricket accident. When the Tories attempted to scare voters with a poster that featured the smile – “New Labour, New Danger” – it backfired, because people liked it. It was so appealing it meant he could get away with pretty much anything, a useful weapon in a prime minister’s armoury. Only once did it let him down, and that was when he was slow-hand clapped by the WI. On that occasion it froze in a rictus.
David Cameron’s charm. “Sunny Jim” Callaghan had a crinkly grin and an easy manner, but by the Winter of Discontent his charm had worn a little thin. Perhaps Cameron’s will too but, for now, it is a formidable weapon. Is it Old Etonian charm? Possibly, but a privileged education can’t buy you likeability and of that he seems to have a lot. Even his natural enemies find it hard to dislike him – Alexei Sayle recently spoke of Cameron’s “wonderful upper-class charm”, and he was raised as a Marxist!
Winston Churchill’s heart. Not without his faults, Churchill could be difficult to work with, especially when he was drunk, which was most of the time. And he could also be manipulative and callous. But these things apart, what a man. And what a heart. Without it, and without the courage, character and leadership that came with it, we may now be living under the Nazi jackboot. “It was the nation that had the lion’s heart,” he once said. “I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
Churchill’s wit. Margaret Thatcher had no sense of humour whatsoever, which was why, whenever her speech writers included a joke, they would have to explain to her why it was funny. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, has had whole books dedicated to his witticisms. This comment, in particular, takes some beating: “He is a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.” You can even get a Winston Churchill “wit app” for your iPad.
Benjamin Disraeli’s way with words. Churchill’s most memorable phrases are the stuff of poetry. But Benjamin Disraeli’s speech-writing skills were truly phenomenal. The only PM who was also a successful novelist, it was said of him that he was like a conjurer on a platform, whose audiences “with open mouths” awaited the next trick. Dip into some of his speeches at random and you can see why. “I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New,” he once said of his religious beliefs. Or how about this: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”
David Lloyd George’s energy. The first and only Welsh prime minister was nicknamed “the Goat” because of his womanising. Kitchener remarked that he tried to avoid sharing military secrets with the Cabinet, as they would all tell their wives, apart from Lloyd George “who would tell someone else’s wife”. Quite how he squared this libido with his devout Christianity is unclear, but there is no doubt that it reflects his energy. Not only did he guide the country through the First World War, he did it with a vigour that would have humbled much younger men. After the war he declared that England should be “a land fit for heroes” and, as Chancellor, he more or less founded the welfare state, most notably with his Housing Act. His energy is reflected in his astonishing longevity as a politician: he first won a seat for the Liberal Party in 1890 and remained an MP for 55 years.
Ted Heath’s hinterland. A prime minister needs one of these to keep sane.Macmillan had his grouse shooting. David Cameron has his “Fruit Ninja”. William Gladstone liked chopping logs with an axe. But the prime minister who turned having a hinterland into an art form was Ted Heath. He had not one but two consuming pastimes: conducting and sailing. And he was surprisingly good at both. He bought his first yacht, Morning Cloud in 1969 and, in the same year, won the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Two years later, while prime minister, Heath captained Britain’s winning team for the Admiral’s Cup. That was the year he also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.
Harold Macmillan’s unflappability. It is essential for a prime minister to show grace under pressure and no one demonstrated this quality better than Macmillan, also known as “Supermac”. During the battle of the Somme he was severely wounded in the buttock and leg while leading a charge across No-man’s-land. After dragging himself to a shell hole, he passed the time until he could be rescued by reading Aeschylus’s Prometheus, in Greek, a copy of which he happened to have in his pocket. Whenever the Germans advanced he would stop reading and lie “doggo”, pretending to be dead. Once they had gone he would resume his reading.
Margaret Thatcher’s eyes. Mitterrand said Thatcher had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula and if you look on YouTube for her interviews with Robin Day you can see exactly what he meant. They were terrifying yet hypnotising at the same time. Good qualities for a PM. In 1969 she gave one of her first print interviews to The Sunday Telegraph. The interviewer, Ivan Rowan, had this to say: “Mrs Thatcher has a slow attractive smile, but even quite experienced parliamentarians can sometimes find her chilling to cross. Something happens to her eyes, like a cold wind passing over a Norfolk beach.” Brrr.
Harold Wilson’s pipe. Surprisingly few prime ministers have appreciated the value of accessorising, but for those who did, the accessory became worth a whole army of spin-doctors. Think Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, or Churchill’s cigar, which made him look confident, as if in permanent celebration. But the prop that had the most impact must be Wilson’s pipe. His bottle of HP sauce and his Gannex mac were good, but the pipe marked him out not only as a man of the people, but also a calm and wise one who reminded you a bit of your father. He didn’t even enjoy pipe smoking that much, preferring a cigar, but he knew a good gimmick when he saw one. I interviewed him once, back in the days when you could still smoke in a restaurant. My first sentence began: “As the pipe smoke clears…”
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