A power-hungry prime minister removes yet another check on his rule. It is theatre worthy of Trump. But the history books suggest he could soon pay a priceby Tom Clark / February 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
The prime minister, in the old phrase, is First Among Equals. But since Britain stopped being a serious, independent force on the world stage—since, say, the 1956 Suez crisis—there has never been any question about which cabinet minister is Second Among Equals.
Deputy prime ministers could come and go, the very role invented or dis-invented by the top dog, as the management of political egos required. But in a perennially cash-strapped country, there is always one serious potential counter-balance to the “First Lord of the Treasury” in No 10, and that is the actual lord of the Treasury who lives next door.
Prime ministers have frequently clashed, sometimes bitterly, with the colleague they entrust with the purse strings. Until today, however, they have only ever thrived when they can find a way to rub along together. Boris Johnson will now discover whether he can be the first modern PM to carelessly mislay a chancellor without coming unstuck.
British political history over the last 50 years is a history of the triumph of the chancellors. Harold Wilson had high hopes of splitting out the day-to-day bean-counting in the Treasury from the serious strategy, which he tried to hand over to a separate ministry of economic affairs. But the plans ran aground on the austere demands of chancellors Jim Callaghan and then Roy Jenkins, who both went on to even more prominent roles in public life.
After that, Tory Iain McCleod died just a month into office but was soon replaced by Anthony Barber, who unleashed an inflationary boom that morphed into a ruinous bust, yet still survived the entire Heath government. After him came Denis Healey, who got through all of Labour’s tumultuous term in 1974-75—remarkably surviving Wilson’s retirement, the IMF crisis and the Winter of Discontent. The whole Labour movement and most of the cabinet, including supposed heavyweights like Anthony Crosland and Tony Benn, were fiercely against his demands for retrenchment, and yet in the end prime minister Callaghan felt forced to row in behind him.
The whole course of the Thatcher government, too, was defined by its chancellors. The self-styled iron lady started out with more cabinet “wets” than fellow hard-liners, but because she could rely on first Geoffrey Howe and then Nigel Lawson to stick with her she…