Harold Wilson was the first "televised" prime minister Photo: © Wikipedia, Allan Warren

What makes a good prime minister?

Risk-takers who call snap elections aren't always rewarded
November 11, 2019

What makes a good prime minister? What does true leadership consist of? And what are the lessons we can draw from recent premierships? You could not ask for a better qualified guide to navigate these questions than political journalist Steve Richards. Richards is renowned for his even-handedness and long experience, and both are on display here as he takes us through the first “televised leaders,” nearly all of whom he has covered as a reporter.

We start in the mid-1960s, with an excellent chapter on Harold Wilson’s two non-consecutive terms. The sections on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both of whom Richards knew well, are standouts. But the whole book brims with counter-intuitive insights—for example on how Thatcher was less of an ideologue than widely assumed, and actually moved pragmatically with the political winds. Richards does a good job of humanising even those PMs he is less keen on, reminding us that politicians are people too.

As a series of reflections on political triumphs and failures and the people responsible, then, Richards has delivered the goods. Given that these chapters were initially delivered as improvised lectures, the (tidied up) result becomes even more impressive.

There is one flaw, which is that there is always a difficulty in drawing together coherent “lessons” from a cast of such different leaders. But there are at least a few firm conclusions. The first is that early elections are dangerous. Ted Heath found that out to his cost, as did Theresa May, and Brown in his own way.

Another, just as relevant right now, is that political leaders often fail to face down the hardliners in their own party when they have the chance.There is no chapter on the current occupant of No 10, Boris Johnson. I hope there will be an updated edition in due course, to shed some light on our turbulent times—and the unpredictable man currently at the helm.

The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May by Steve Richards (Atlantic, £20)