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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
The long goodbye
David Cannadine
By David Cannadine

Tony Blair isn't the first prime minister to find it difficult to make a successful exit from 10, Downing Street.

"Going," Tony Blair once observed, "is the most difficult thing in politics," and he's certainly been discovering that for himself in recent weeks. It may be hard to get into 10 Downing Street, but getting out of it can sometimes be even more difficult.

Tony Blair
Prime ministers struggle to control their departure from office

Popes and monarchs generally reign until they die, and since Franklin Roosevelt, American presidents can serve only two four year terms. But there's no such specified tenure for a British prime minister, and there are a variety of different routes by which they can make their exit.

Just occasionally, they choose their own time, as in the case of Stanley Baldwin or Harold Wilson. And just occasionally, they have had no choice whatsoever. Spencer Percival was assassinated and Lord Palmerston also expired in office.

But while the grim reaper has visited 10 Downing Street only occasionally, its occupants have often resigned on health grounds, among them Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, and there are several others who probably should have done so too.

Departure lounge

Yet even a strong constitution is no guarantee of survival if a prime minister loses the support of his erstwhile political allies. Asquith was ousted by a cabinet coup during the First World War, and six years later Lloyd George was brought down when the Conservative back benchers refused to sustain him in power any longer.

In May 1940, Neville Chamberlain resigned after a bruising Commons debate in which his war leadership was repeatedly censured. He wasn't actually defeated in the division lobbies, but he was mortally wounded, especially by the speech of a former colleague, Leopold Amery, which he ended by quoting Oliver Cromwell's scornful dismissal of the Long Parliament: "You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

So far as we know, no one has yet said that to Tony Blair.

Of course, prime ministers have also been voted out of office by the British electorate, but although we consider ourselves a democracy, it doesn't happen all that often. To be sure, John Major's landslide rejection was so decisive that he promptly resigned, both as prime minister and as Conservative leader.

But in 1951, Clement Attlee won a majority of the votes, although only a minority of seats, and he continued as leader of the Labour Party in opposition. Thirteen years later, Sir Alec Douglas Home was defeated by what was again a very small margin, and he, too, continued as party leader. And in 1974, Edward Heath resigned, not because he lost the first general election held that year, but because he'd failed to form a coalition with the Liberals.

Once again, political manoeuvring had at least as much to do with a prime ministerial demise as the direct effect of the people's will exerted via the ballot box.

Staying on

As these examples suggest, and as Tony Blair should not by now need reminding, British prime ministers have rarely left office at a time of their own choosing, or under the circumstances they would ideally have liked.

Like Frank Sinatra or Martina Navratilova, Gladstone just kept coming back, returning as Prime Minister three more times, the last occasion being almost 20 years since he'd first announced his intention to retire
David Cannadine

The best that can be said is that most of them go relatively quickly. But not all of them. Across the last 100-odd years, there have been three Prime Ministers whose delayed and belated exits from 10 Downing Street provide the most obvious precedents for the protracted saga that's at present still unfolding.

It may encourage the prime minister to know that they're among the most titanic figures in recent British political history. It may be less encouraging to point out that in each case, they stayed too long, and that the manner of their going did nothing to enhance their reputation.

The first of them was Mr Gladstone, whose long goodbye was the longest ever. In 1874, after being defeated at the polls, he resigned both the prime ministership and the Liberal Party leadership, intending to devote his retirement to studying the classics and theology.

But like Frank Sinatra or Martina Navratilova, he just kept coming back, returning as Prime Minister three more times, the last occasion being in 1892, almost 20 years since he'd first announced his intention to retire.

By then, Gladstone was in his mid eighties, he was half-blind and, if Queen Victoria was to be believed, he was also half-mad. But he had one final mission: he was determined to carry Irish Home Rule, even though every one knew the House of Lords would throw it out, which it duly did in September 1893.

Reluctant Gladstone

With that defeat, Gladstone's last administration was effectively over, but he stayed on for another seven months, to the increasing fury of his cabinet colleagues.

Winston Churchill
Churchill remained in Downing Street into his eighties

He even considered asking the queen for a dissolution of parliament, so he could fight another general election, and wage a national campaign against the obstructionism of the upper house.

But one minister described the proposal as "the act of a selfish lunatic", and it was quietly dropped. Then Gladstone got into another row with his colleagues over the naval estimates, where he opposed the substantial increase in expenditure that was being put forward. By now, just about the only thing that his ministers could agree on was that the prime minister must go.

But Gladstone was determined to keep his colleagues guessing and fretting, and he didn't resign until March 1894. There was an embarrassing last cabinet meeting, and Victoria couldn't conceal her delight that she'd finally seen the back of a premier she had come to detest.

"The Queen," she wrote, in a letter of staggering ungraciousness, "would gladly have offered a peerage to Mr Gladstone, but she knows that he would not accept it."

The second great prime ministerial procrastinator was Winston Churchill. On his defeat at the general election of 1945, there were those who urged him to retire to work on his memoirs. Churchill duly wrote his history of the Second World War, but he was also determined to get back to 10 Downing Street, and this he finally did at the election held in 1951.

Running on empty

By now he was in failing health, and he suffered a major stroke two years later, soon after the Queen's coronation. But he staged a remarkable recovery, and refused to contemplate retirement. He hated the prospect of giving up power for what he knew must be the last time.

His heir apparent, Anthony Eden, was himself seriously ill, and in no position to take over. And like Gladstone, Churchill wanted to end his public life with one last great triumph: the brokering of a summit meeting between the Americans and the Russians.

The meeting never materialised, but Churchill still hung on. "I feel," he told one of his colleagues, Rab Butler, "like an aeroplane at the end of its flight, in the dusk, with the petrol running out, in search of a safe landing".

He celebrated his 80th birthday in office in November 1954, the first prime minister to do so since Palmerston 90 years earlier. But the cabinet was growing increasingly restive and, again like Gladstone, Churchill took delight in keeping them waiting and worrying.

He also turned against Anthony Eden, claiming that his "hungry eyes" were growing "ever more beseeching and more impatient" - not altogether surprisingly, since Eden had been waiting to succeed to the top job for longer than Gordon Brown has.

Eventually, Churchill went in early April 1955. At his final audience, Queen Elizabeth II behaved with much greater graciousness to him than Victoria had to Gladstone. She even offered to make him a duke - although Churchill refused.

Over and out

The final member of this illustrious trio is Margaret Thatcher. Like Tony Blair, she won a third successive election victory, in the summer of 1987. Unlike Blair, she did not say that it would be her last contest: instead, she threatened to go "on and on and on and on".

But this declaration was as unsettling then as Blair's undertaking to do just the opposite would later turn out to be, and the gossip, the demands and the speculation soon began that she should retire.

Like Blair, Thatcher's popularity waned, in part because of her determination to introduce the community charge, or "poll tax" as it became known. She also found it increasingly difficult to hold her cabinet together.

Nigel Lawson quit as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn of 1989, and he was followed a year later by Geoffrey Howe, who delivered a devastating resignation speech in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, Michael Heseltine challenged Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative party, and although he didn't win, she also failed to secure the requisite votes. Still she refused to go, resolving to fight on.

But once again, it was the cabinet which turned against the premier, and a succession of ministers advised her to resign, which she grudgingly and belatedly did. She became a member of the Order of Merit, and eventually a Lady of the Garter and a life peer as well. Her long-suffering husband Denis was given a baronetcy, which is a sort of hereditary knighthood.

By no other means would her wayward son ever have become Sir Mark Thatcher. What honours, when his own time comes, will Tony Blair accept for himself - and for his wife Cherie? And how many months will it be before they make that final trip together to Buckingham Palace? Blair's long goodbye gets both longer, and shorter, by the day.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Tony Blair has still got enormous stamina, fresh ideas, clarity of thought, wit and political acumen. So why should he step down earlier than when he said he would especially when he was single handedly responsible for making Labour electable? Perhaps the others waiting in the wings to take over from him could try and make the next 12 months or so a positive period for Labour by galvanizing the Party faithful and by showing Labour supporters that Labour has fresh ideas and will not disappoint them at the next elections. Labour should not hand the elections on a platter to the Conservatives. That means no in-fighting but working solidly behind Tony Blair till he leaves. Whoever is chosen as the next Labour leader should be given undivided support. No one should assume it would be Gordan Brown: it has to be a charismatic intelligent proven leader who is able to unite all strands of the Labour Party when Tony leaves. Only then will Labour stand a chance against a rejuvenated Tory party under David Cameron. The Liberal Democrats are currently going through their political doldrums and do not pose a threat to Labour.
Pancha Chandra, Brussels; Belgium

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