how hopefuls compare to former prime ministers in terms of experience

In general, it is assumed that the best candidates for the post of prime minister are people who have considerable experience in high-level politics. Ideally, this experience would entail having served in the cabinet, and in particular having held one of the “great offices of state”: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary.

Of the remaining candidates in the race to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, two have held big state offices and two have much less experience, seeking instead to present themselves as clean slate candidates who have not been as closely associated with the Johnson government. Members of the Conservative Party will soon be asked to decide which of these options is preferable when voting for their new leader.

How does your respective experience compare with that of previous prime ministers? And does it matter?

On average, the 13 Prime Ministers who have governed the UK since 1955 had spent 147 months (over 12 years) working in the shadow cabinet or in the cabinet when they came to power.

Of these, eight had spent ten years at the top level. Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan served for nearly 25 years at the highest levels of opposition and government before becoming Prime Minister in 1976.

The least experienced was Boris Johnson, with just 24 months as foreign secretary. However, he had previously served eight years as Mayor of London, a post that could be roughly analogous to a cabinet post (not a big job). John Major enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Thatcher governments, serving just 41 months in cabinet before becoming prime minister. Most of the more experienced prime ministers took office when their parties were already in government (ie mid-term) rather than winning a general election.

Combined cabinet and shadow cabinet experience of UK Prime Ministers since 1955

A graph showing that James Callaghan had the most prime ministerial experience since 1955 and Boris Johnson the least.
Prime ministers and their years at the highest level of politics. Green = mid-term prime ministers; orange = ‘elected’ prime ministers.
T. Quinn, 2016 Conservative Party Leadership Election: Choosing a Leader in Government, British Politics 14:1 (2019); british parliament website, Author provided

The great offices of the state

Of the 13 prime ministers since 1955, eight came to power in the middle of a term after being selected by their parties. His experiences are therefore particularly relevant to hopefuls vying to become the next mid-term Conservative prime minister in September.

Anthony Eden and Gordon Brown had more than ten years of experience in the big offices, Callaghan more than seven, and Theresa May six. Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Macmillan had a lot of experience in the office, but more in other departments.

The other two mid-term prime ministers, Major and Johnson, had much less experience, although they had both held high posts.

On average, mid-term prime ministers had more than seven years of cabinet experience, five of them in the big offices. All eight mid-term prime ministers had previously held at least one major post, with Major holding two and Callaghan all three.

Cabinet experience of new prime ministers since 1955

A chart showing how long various prime ministers spent in cabinet before taking office.
prime ministers and their experience in the cabinet. * = medium-term prime ministers. Blue = large state offices; pink = other cabinet positions.
Quinn, 2016 Conservative Party Leadership Election; british parliament website, Author provided

Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson came to power by winning the opposition general election, although all three had cabinet experience. Only Tony Blair and David Cameron had no previous cabinet experience, as their respective parties had just finished long spells in opposition when they won the general election. However, both had served for several years as opposition leaders.

What this means for leadership hopefuls

Some of the more experienced candidates – Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Grant Shapps – are already out of the current race to become Conservative leader. Liz Truss is by far the most experienced of the remaining candidates, with eight years in the cabinet, most recently as foreign secretary. Rishi Sunak has three years of experience, mainly as foreign minister. Truss’s experience profile resembles Macmillan’s, while Sunak’s is similar to Major’s.

Cabinet experience for 2022 Conservative leadership candidates

A chart showing that Liz Truss has the most senior experience of the current candidates for Leader of the Conservative Party.
How the current candidates compare. Blue = large state offices; pink = other cabinet positions.
british parliament website, Author provided

The other candidates have less experience. Penny Mordaunt has never served in a large office, a brief stint in the Ministry of Defense being her most senior job. She is currently a minor minister. Kemi Badenoch has never served in the cabinet.

Penny Mordaunt at her campaign launch
Penny Mordaunt has very little ministerial experience.

Ruling parties tend to prioritize competition over eligibility when choosing a new leader. Medium-term prime ministers have little time to familiarize themselves with the job. They must make quick decisions about what policies to change and who to appoint to the cabinet. Experience can help with these decisions. But the Conservatives in 2022 have already rejected some of the more experienced candidates on offer. Truss fits the usual profile of a mid-term prime minister, Sunak partly and the other candidates not at all.

However, some of the most experienced postwar prime ministers were also among the least successful and short-lived. Eden had more experience than anyone, but he saw his prime ministership destroyed by the Suez crisis. Douglas-Home lasted 364 days before losing an election. Brown spent ten years as chancellor while waiting for the top job, but when he finally arrived, he had few innovative policies left. Callaghan is indelibly associated with the winter of discontent, while May’s premiership was defined by her failure to secure Brexit.

Therefore, past experience does not necessarily equate to government success. The most successful prime ministers since 1955 are Thatcher and Blair, who represented breaks with the past in their own parties and were both elected by the opposition before winning multiple elections.

The dilemma for the Conservatives is that Truss and Sunak are known numbers, but may represent continuity at a time when the Conservatives are trailing in the polls. Mordaunt and Badenoch are breaks from the past, but how would they fare running a government?

If the past is anything to go by, the Conservatives may eventually go with one of the more experienced candidates.

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