Coat-Tails Prime Ministers

The following is my undergraduate dissertation, written as part of the HSPS tripos. This was researched and written between the summer of 2015 and finished by May 2016, just before the European Referendum, with the resignation of Cameron and the creation of a new coat-tails prime minister.




 Since 1945, Britain has seen some particularly effective leaders hold the prime ministership. Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair are seen as consummate brokers of power, exercising their will in the pursuance of governmental aims. These prime ministers are held up as archetypes of successful or powerful prime ministers. Attempts to rank prime ministers, such as by Peter Hennessy in his book The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 (Hennessy 2001: 541-47), and Kevin Theakston and Mark Gill in their article The Postwar Premiership League (Theakston and Gill 2001: 67-80), place these prime ministers as their ‘top three’ since 1945.

The way in which these rankings value the attributes of Attlee, Thatcher and Blair is notable. Using a unidimensional scale to rank prime ministers ignores the structural constraints faced by different leaders. John Major and Gordon Brown, the successors of Thatcher and Blair respectively, generally perform poorly when ranked against other prime ministers. However, Major and Brown faced a very different scenario when they came to power. Both facing increasingly divided parties that had been in office for over a decade, they suffered from a wider range of structural restraints on their power than Thatcher and Blair. While all prime ministers find themselves structurally limited in their ability to exercise power, ‘coat-tails’ prime ministers have found themselves particularly restricted in their ability to act. ‘Coat-tails’ prime ministers are prime ministers who come to power outside of a general election year. Since 1945, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, James Callaghan, John Major, and Gordon Brown have all suffered from the constraints of becoming prime minister mid-term and not immediately seeking a fresh mandate. These individuals share a number of features in common that often combine to frustrate the achievement of their objectives. These additional structural constraints serve to limit the ambition, restrict the actions, and even damage the personal reputation of these prime ministers.

Parallels between these individuals are common. In their account of Gordon Brown’s premiership, Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge (Seldon and Lodge 2011: xxx) note how Brown’s inheritance bears some resemblance to that of James Callaghan, who succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976, with a majority dwindling to zero in the midst of a worsening economic crisis. His situation when entering Number 10 compares too, to that of John Major in 1990, taking over from a leader who, while increasingly embattled, was still beloved by many of the party faithful

However, there has been little systematic investigation of the real similarities between these premierships. To make such cross historical comparisons may be provocative as a great deal of detail and consideration for individual circumstance is lost. However, grouping political leaders in terms of the roles they play in the development of an ideological movement or government provides a greater insight into the institutional pressures around these leaders. For example, Philip Norton created a qualitative four-way typology of twentieth century prime ministers in his January 1988 article in Social Studies Review (Norton 1988: 108-115). Dividing leaders into ‘Innovators’, ‘Reformers’, and ‘Egoists’, Norton places Macmillan, Callaghan, and Douglas-Home in the fourth section, ‘Balancers’. By placing coat-tails prime ministers in this role, Norton is highlighting how reconciliation and reorganising are key imperatives for these prime ministers, roles far divorced from the strong-arm leadership of Blair and Thatcher.


Innovators Reformers Egoists Balancers
Churchill (Wartime)







Lloyd George?




Power Seeking Conscripts



Churchill (peacetime)



Bonar Law


Source: Philip Norton, ‘Prime Ministerial Power’, Social Studies Review, (January 1988)


Skowronek (Skowronek 1993) similarly develops this method of qualitatively contextualising leaders in ‘roles’. He argues that US presidents can be identified as playing a part in the lifespan of a political ideological project. He divides the ‘Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Republican and liberal regimes’ (Skowronek 1993: 58) into three:

The first part considers the president who constructed the regime; the second part, the orthodox innovator who rearticulated the old formulas in the greatest leap forward on received commitments; the third part, the affiliate who had to cope with the collapse of the old formulas as solutions to the governing problems of the day (Skowronek 1993: 58)

Skowronek places Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter as the reconstruction, articulation, and disjunction of the New Deal liberal coalition, respectively. By placing premiers within a system of different roles within a political project, Norton and Skowronek illustrate how circumstance can come to determine the level of power and form of leadership exercised by leaders. Coat-tails prime ministers fit into this model of leadership roles as they experience a different set of structural limitations based upon the leadership role they are given to fill.

The notion of leadership roles sits awkwardly with many studies of political offices. The study of the British prime ministership has suffered from a narrow concentration on the increasing power of prime ministers, without a consideration of the roles played by different holders of that office. Theorists such as Michael Foley go as far as arguing a ‘British presidency’ has emerged, a phenomenon ‘exerting a profound influence upon the forms of political leadership and on the sources and usages of political authority’ (Foley 2000: 26). Foley’s grand claims of a defining change in the office of prime minister are overstated. While some prime ministers may have reached levels of ‘presidential’ power, this does not indicate that all holders of this office can reach this level of predominance. Coat-tails prime ministers are ‘balancers’, and can not and do not exercise presidential predominance in terms of political power. The relative weakness of coat-tails prime ministers therefore provides a clear critique of the presidential thesis. While some prime ministers could be said to be ‘presidential’, coat-tails prime ministers illustrate that not all prime ministers are inherently presidential by virtue of their office, and thus bold claims of a ‘British presidency’ are disingenuous.




 Foley’s presidential thesis can be seen as the most recent iteration of a long debate in the study of British politics. The British Presidency (Foley 2000) can be seen as grounded in classic studies written in the 1960s who argued that the traditional system of British ‘cabinet’ government was being replaced by ‘prime ministerial’ government.

Two of the most prominent early writers on ‘prime ministerial government’ come from the Labour MPs R.H.S. Crossman and J.P. Mackintosh. Crossman’s 1963 introduction to Walter Bagehot’s ‘The English Constitution’ (Crossman 1963) sought to contrast Bagehot’s conception of the cabinet against the modern reality. Bagehot saw the cabinet as ‘a hyphen that joins, a buckle that fastens, the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state’ (Bagehot 1963: 69).  Crossman attempts to recast Bagehot’s system of political change to explain the perceived increase in prime ministerial power. He argues that the Cabinet ‘joins the other dignified elements of the constitution’ (Crossman 1963: 54) such as the monarchy and the House of Lords. Crossman talks of this trend being ‘in obedience to the law that Bagehot discovered’ (Crossman 1963: 54), with the Cabinet appearing to rule, whereas an efficient secret of prime ministerial government emerges behind the scenes.

J.P. Mackintosh follows in a similar vein, giving a detailed historical account of the rise of the prime ministerial power, focussing on ‘changes in party organisation, the volume of business and the subject-matter of politics’ (Mackintosh 1968: 611). Mackintosh does not agree with Crossman’s argument that the Cabinet has become redundant and ‘dignified’, rather, ‘the point is that the Cabinet is no longer the nineteenth-century body which took virtually all decisions’ (Mackintosh 1968: 611). Decision making is the key aspect that has disappeared, with the main role of the Cabinet now being ‘that it reconciles, records, and authorises’ (Mackintosh 1968: 612). These writers both represent the classic, early, cabinet-based arguments of prime ministerial power. They centre on prime ministerial domination over cabinet, and provide the distinction between ‘cabinet’ and ‘prime ministerial’ government.

Michael Foley’s work The British Presidency provided an analytical break from these classic arguments. Foley does not contextualise his work wholly in terms of the cabinet. He takes in a wider range of issues, studying the prime minister in terms of media presentation, election strategy, and rhetoric. While presidential analogies in this debate are not new, Foley’s work can be seen as the apex of the debate over prime ministerial power. Foley’s popularisation of the ‘British Presidency’ rhetoric makes a bolder claim than preceding theorists of prime ministerial power. Foley’s distinctive contribution to the argument is seen in his concept of ‘leadership stretch’. This ‘term refers to the way that party leaders have increasingly stretched away from their senior colleagues in terms of media attention and popular awareness’ (Foley 2000: 205). Foley’s argument highlights three factors, all of which contribute to his central concept of ‘leadership stretch’. The first of these is ‘spacial leadership’, a ‘way in which political authority is protected and cultivated by the creation of a sense of distance and, occasionally, detachment from government’ (Foley 2000: 31). This phenomenon plays to the public desire for an ‘outsider’ in politics, someone not born in the political bubble and rather enters with a noble cause. From Jimmy Carter’s simple southern farmer routine, to Reagan’s rallying calls against ‘government’, this has been a recurring theme in US politics, and British politics have followed the American lead. Thatcher maintained a position as the rank outsider candidate in challenging Heath. Blair’s style was to distance himself from the traditional Labour style of balancing party opinion to ‘openly resisting the gravitational force of the party itself’ (Foley 2000: 31). While distancing themselves from party, Foley also notes the trend of leaders to appeal directly to a ‘silent majority’. The Nixonian method has continued and become a regular part of US and British politics. Thatcher’s appeals to housewives quietly managing their family spending gave a personal touch to economic policies. The third aspect Foley adds to the debate is the trend towards personalisation, where the personality of the prime minister and leader of the opposition take a much greater role in deciding elections and electoral success. Thatcher carefully crafted a sharp image in her dress, manners, and way of speaking. Blair created his ‘call me Tony’ image to design an affable personality for the electorate.

Foley concentrates near exclusively on the premierships of Thatcher and Blair, seeing their time in office as indicative of a systemic change in the office of prime minister.  Foley’s concentration on Thatcher and Blair is problematic, however, given that these two notoriously strong prime ministers both had weaker successors. John Major and Gordon Brown rode on the ‘coat tails’ of Thatcher and Blair. Foley’s analysis is based on cherry-picking cases of prime ministerial power that fit with his theory. He inadequately brushes over the seven years John Major was in power and is quick to base his thesis merely on the premiership of Thatcher and the first 3 years of Blair’s time in office. It is contentious as to whether any coat-tails prime ministers could have kept such a powerful sway over the Cabinet, Parliament, and public as Thatcher and Blair. In many ways, it could be said that coat-tails prime ministers have much less ‘leadership stretch’. As these prime ministers emerged from of the choice of the party, not the electorate, the cord linking the prime minister to their constraints is tighter. The autonomous power of a coat-tails prime minister is much less than that of a prime minister that comes to power through an election. This weakness disrupts theories of prime ministerial power. One cannot argue that the position of prime minister has become more powerful, or is a presidency, when the capacity for presidential leadership by prime ministers varies so systematically.




If the presence of structurally weaker coat-tails prime ministers provides a critique of the theory of a ‘British presidency’, a measure of prime ministerial power must be established. ‘Power’ will be understood in Weberian terms, concentrating on the ability of the prime minister to achieve their own aims against the resistance of others trying to prevent them from achieving these aims. This definition of power is particularly applicable as its concentration on individual aims illustrates prime ministerial dominance within a collegial executive, a key aspect of arguments of prime ministerial dominance. However, prime ministerial power cannot be understood merely in terms of cabinet domination. The ability of prime ministers to exercise their will over the legislature and party is vital. Additionally, prime ministers must be able to maintain their power, and retain the confidence and support of their party and MPs, through keeping their party electorally viable.

The classic realm of prime ministerial dominance is the cabinet. The growing dominance of the prime minister over this body is, to theorists such as Crossman or Mackintosh, part of a transition from a collegial to singular executive. Cabinet also represents a key tool in the distribution of patronage, as the prime minister has freedom of choice of its membership. The way in which the prime minister appoints, interacts, and sets the agenda in the cabinet is a clear measure of prime ministerial power. While based mainly on qualitative measures, tangible differences in approach, atmosphere, appointments and resignations within the cabinet can be noted between different prime ministers. This provides a helpful gauge of the relative power of different prime ministers, based on the ability for prime ministers to achieve their personal aims through cabinet.

Dominance over the cabinet, however, is futile without maintaining dominance over the legislature and the wider political party. Only with party cohesion within an overall majority in the Commons can a prime minister attain their personal aims, and, at the very least, maintain their position. It is essential to measure both the power held in the legislature in terms of majorities, and also party unity. While a larger majority is generally more secure than a smaller majority, the size of a majority on paper is meaningless without maintaining enough party unity to pass legislation through divisions.

The power the prime minister holds over the executive, legislature, and party is based partially on the ability of the prime minister to present a viable case for re-election. All party leaders face the imperative of moving the party toward elected office, and when confidence in this is lost, support for the leader within the party is lost. Power, therefore, is partially based upon the ability of the party leader to show electoral success. Positive party polling gives party leaders leverage to make bold and even unpopular decisions. Therefore, support within the electorate is a vital measure of prime ministerial power not just in the respect that the position of prime minister can be maintained through the next general election. Popular support translates into power through party confidence in their leader to make the right decisions in the quest for re-election.

When comparing the relative power of prime ministers in these three dimensions, it is important not to oversimplify and ignore the vast individual variation between different leaders. While these measures of prime ministerial power will show some common themes between coat-tails prime ministers, it is important not to reduce individual variation into a simple binary of ‘weak’ or ‘powerful’ prime ministers.

For example, Harold Macmillan clearly sticks out as the strongest of the coat-tails prime ministers. Macmillan was one of only two of these prime ministers to win an election, and is generally not regarded in the same vein as his successor Douglas-Home. Macmillan’s boldness in attempting to take Britain into Europe and oversee accelerated decolonisation does not give an impression of a caretaker prime minister. Despite having the longevity of his premiership questioned as it began, Macmillan managed to increase his majority in in 1959 general election, securing a proactive second half to his term. He was not a prime minister seeing out the ailing days of an exhausted administration.

However, this does not not reduce the applicability of Macmillan to the concept of coat-tails prime ministers. Macmillan’s power was as a result of the circumstances he found himself in which reduced the institutional constraints faced by other coat-tails prime ministers. Most notably, Macmillan was not overshadowed by his predecessors. Eden’s disgraced and Churchill’s ideologically devoid premierships allowed Macmillan the freedom to carve his own ideological niche without overtly repudiating the government’s previous work. Macmillan inherited a relatively large and recent majority of 60 seats from the 1955 general election, leaving him secure despite the political storm through which he became prime minister. While one cannot ignore Macmillan’s personal skill in consolidating his power, it is certainly possible to argue that Macmillan was the most powerful of the coat-tails prime ministers and this was helped by the weak inheritance he had to contend with.

Every prime minister is different and subject to their own individual circumstances. However, there is an overwhelming level of evidence to indicate that the majority of coat-tails prime ministers share a number of structural limitations on their power. As such, they can be treated as a cohesive group, and can provide a strong critique of theories of ‘prime ministerial’ or ‘presidential’ government.




The composition of the cabinet is the first and most immediate task facing an incoming prime minister. While the prerogative to choose ministers is given to the prime minister, this does not mean cabinet is completely compliant in allowing the prime minister to achieve their aims.  Internal party politics play a large role in cabinet appointments, and weaker prime ministers may have their hand forced on a number of occasions.



Coat-tails prime ministers have their cabinets in part dictated to them through necessity. As many are faced with a disunited party, new cabinets become a vital tool in bringing different wings and factions together to maintain a workable government. Of course all prime ministers face some constraints in appointing cabinet members. They are all pressured to include the ‘big beasts’ of the party. Mrs Thatcher is remembered for her ability to purge ‘wets’ from her cabinet, but admitted that her 1979 cabinet included appointments that ‘excited more comment’ (Thatcher 1993: 59) thanks to publicly known disagreements, such as with Jim Prior, where on trade union reform ‘there was deep disagreement about how fast and how far to move’ (Thatcher 1993: 58). Until 2011 incoming Labour prime ministers were obliged to maintain the shadow cabinet they had elected for them the previous year. The prime minister was inhibited to merely delegating the offices these individuals held, though still reserved the right to choose freely from all MPs and Lords in any reshuffles while in office. However, despite the wide range of structural limitations faced by all prime ministers, coat-tails prime ministers find themselves particularly restricted. As they seek to unite the party, the inclusion of popular dissenters from within the ranks is common. However, the lack of the requisite strength to exclude dissenters is most acutely seen when these individuals feel they hold significant enough weight to resign and cause serious damage to the prime minister.

This factor has been evident from the earliest post-war examples of coat-tails governments. Harold Macmillan suffered the double resignations of Lord President Salisbury and his Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, within a year after coming to power. Following Salisbury’s resignation in March 1957 Macmillan remarked how the press fortells the early collapse of the government, as result of Ld Salisbury’s resignation; the Suez failure; Makarios and Cyprus; the strikes, and the general sense of malaise. The Sunday Express is particularly virulent (Macmillan 2003: 25)

Salisbury knew the government was weak, and he could throw his weight around to pressure the government in policy decisions over Cyprus. Likewise, Macmillan himself noted in his diary in January 1958 how ‘Thorneycroft’s letter was in brutal terms, calculated, if unanswered, to do maximum injury to sterling’ (Macmillan 2003: 88) and, implicitly, the government. While Macmillan successfully brushed off these events, they reflect the weaknesses of coat-tails prime ministers when forming their initial cabinets. Douglas-Home even suffered the indignation of having Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod refuse to serve in his cabinet. While Powell only resented Home for changing his mind on his candidacy, ‘Macleod’s objections went deeper, not least the slur the choice of a peer cast on the competence of over 300 Conservatives in the House of Commons’ (Thorpe 2007: 312). These issues were still evident at the beginning of Gordon Brown’s tenure, who was seemingly aware of the disadvantage faced by coat-tails prime ministers and thus placed Blairites such as David Miliband and Alan Johnson in leading posts. Seldon and Lodge argue:

A cynic might be tempted to ask whether Brown’s outbreak of affability to Blairites was a Machiavellian device to ensure a united and plot-free party in the run-up to a planned general election a year or so away. (Seldon and Lodge 2011: 8).

Cabinet composition and resignations are not issues isolated to coat-tails prime ministers. However, they are emphasised and exaggerated in these cases, offering a possible existential threat to the leadership, as well as leaving an individual frustration over the need to assert one’s own legitimacy as prime minister, yet having no personal mandate. Coat-tails prime ministers must walk the line between establishing an independent style while showing respect to established party norms and grandees.



The notion of placing a personal stamp upon the government is one that is important to coat tails prime ministers. When a coat-tails prime minister comes to power, allusions to their predecessor are unavoidable. In some ways, a coat-tails prime minister may reap the rewards of being a fresh face in government. Providing relief for the most hated features of their predecessor may provide a windfall of support. Morgan argues that ‘Callaghan’s standing as Prime Minister, of course, was derived largely from the way he conducted himself in supreme office. But it was, at least initially, based on the simple fact that he was not Harold Wilson.’ (Morgan 1997: 486)

However, even when coat-tails prime ministers seem to benefit from these comparisons, they still find themselves defined by their predecessor. Coat-tails prime ministers follow an awkward path. They are not from the opposition, and as such, they cannot tear down the work of their predecessor. They must continue their work, while still crafting their own personal style. The presence of this constant yardstick of their predecessor becomes overall a limit on the power of a coat tail prime minister. The freedom of movement in terms of policy and ideology is restricted as an image of political difference to be presented, but loyalists to the predecessor must be satisfied.

This impact was most acutely seen with John Major, who quite possibly had the largest legacy to react to, and the sorest exit wound to heal. Major acknowledged himself he had ‘to talk up my inheritance, while moving with the minimum of fuss to correct my own party’s mistakes’ (Major 1999: 209). This need to maintain a Thatcherite link, and the lack of ability to denounce the policies of 1979 in 1997 left Major restricted. ‘Operating in this ideological and institutionally confined space meant Major and other Ministers did not seem to realise how right-wing they were’ (Gilmour and Garnett 1998: 366). It is mostly through the dimensions of ideology and policy that the inability of coat-tails prime ministers to shape government is most clearly seen.



Core to arguments of prime ministerial government is the centralisation of policy decisions in the prime minister. Mackintosh highlights how policy making is performed by the prime minister, such as how Wilson’s policies ‘on Vietnam, to retain a presence east of Suez, to enter Europe… though concerted with Mr Brown and Mr Callaghan, were his policies rather than that of the whole Cabinet.’ (Mackintosh 1968: 611). Strong prime ministers are perceived as having a consistent thread throughout their term, thanks to their ability to control policymaking. Thatcher had clear ‘Thatcherite’ objective, forming a cohesive ideology against which policies of others can be compared. Likewise, one can speak of a cohesive ‘Blairite’ ideology as opposed to a looser ‘Brownite’ ideology. Writers have categorised ‘Blair as ideologically more market driven and Brown as ideologically more ‘Old Labour’’ (Kenny 2010: 379). Blair’s policies are seen as an ideological break from traditional Labour Party thought, whereas Brown’s views are less cohesive and represent a return to traditional ‘Old’ Labour values. Brown himself was aware of the balance he had to strike between ideological paths.  Seldon and Lodge note how:

Brown was also acutely aware that, on domestic policy, he needed to strike a difficult balance, moving away from the unpopular aspects of the Blair regime and thus refreshing Labour in office without compromising the strengths that had won the party three successive elections (Seldon and Lodge 2011: 16)

Prime ministerial loss of control over policy can also emerge from more direct factors. There may be clear parliamentary restraints holding back a government. As will be explored later, Jim Callaghan was entirely hamstrung throughout his tenure as his ‘government’s majority, already, virtually invisible, vanished entirely on 7th April, on Callaghan’s first full day as Prime Minister’ (Morgan 1997: 482).

On the other hand, prime ministers may be forced into giving policy concessions to powerful members of their cabinet, such as Douglas-Home who was pressured by Edward Heath, his Secretary of State for Industry, Trade, and Regional Development, into abolishing retail price maintenance. To D.R. Thorpe, ‘it was a question of backing Heath or moving him to another department. The second option was not politically viable’ (Thorpe 2007: 356).

Policy restraint may not even be self-imposed. John Major felt prior to his 1992 election victory that he was ‘living in sin with the electorate’ (Major 1999: 291), and as a result, did not feel emboldened enough ‘to press straight on with parliamentary ratification of the [Maastricht] Treaty but instead delay it until after the election’ (Bale 2010: 37).

The concessions, hesitations, and restrictions presented here illustrate the varied ideological limits and pressures placed on coat-tail prime ministers. While these limits are substantively different for every coat-tail prime minister, they all emerge from the same source; the fact that a new prime minister has emerged during a long-serving government, and is likely to face reduced majorities and intra-party competition, as well as the lack of a direct mandate.




Key to any prime minister achieving their aims is the maintenance of a majority in the House of Commons, and ensuring this majority is workable to the extent that legislation can pass.  Coat-tails prime ministers are more likely to struggle both from a depleted Commons majority as well as a divided party. These two factors interact, exacerbating each other. Party divisions are exaggerated by reduced majorities as government defeats become much more likely and the impact of rebellious MPs are felt more. In turn, reduced majorities are exaggerated by party divisions as seemingly workable small majorities become less productive thanks to widespread dissent.



Reduced majorities can significantly inhibit the ability of coat-tails prime ministers to achieve their aims. Faced with the likelihood of defeat or a further reduced majority should they call a general election; coat-tails prime ministers are stuck with the hand they are dealt by their predecessors. This combined impact of increasingly muted election victories, by-election losses, and defections leave coat-tails prime ministers at a disadvantage compared to their predecessors.

Predecessor’s highest election majority Predecessor’s most recent election majority Coat-tails majority on leaving office Net change since most recent predecessor election
66 seats

Eden 1955

66 seats

Eden 1955

94 seats

Macmillan 1963

+28 seats
100 seats

Macmillan 1959

100 seats

Macmillan 1959

90 seats

Douglas-Home 1964

-10 seats
98 seats

Wilson 1966

3 seats

Wilson Oct 1974

-17 seats

Callaghan 1979

-20 seats
144 seats

Thatcher 1983

102 seats

Thatcher 1987

-13 seats

Major 1997

-115 seats
179 seats

Blair 1997

66 seats

Blair 2005

50 seats

Brown 2010

-16 seats
Data taken from British Political Facts (Butler and Butler 2011)

Calculations by the author

Generally, coat-tails prime ministers do not get a chance to utilise a Commons majority of the size used by their predecessor. By the time coat-tails prime ministers have come to power, there tends to have already been a steady of attrition of seats under their predecessor that continues while they are in office. This means that coat-tails prime ministers never get to experience the level of Commons domination enjoyed at times by their predecessor. This has a particular impact on the policy ambitions of coat-tails prime ministers, who must be more modest in their intentions so as not to risk defeat. Policy will generally fall within the accepted ideological basis of the party. For example, it is unlikely that Gordon Brown would have gone ahead with Blair’s Higher Education Act of 2004, which introduced tuition fees. 71 Labour MPs rebelled, an amount that would have resulted in defeat for Brown, who inherited an already depleted majority of 66 from the 2005 general election. While 66 seats formed a sizeable majority, it would not have been enough to force a particularly controversial measure like tuition fees through. Even seemingly large majorities can inhibit the power of coat-tails prime ministers compared to the power exercised at times by their predecessor.

While Gordon Brown found himself limited in his ability to pass controversial legislation, some coat tails prime ministers find passing any legislation a challenge. Both Callaghan and Major experienced periods where they were in minority government. This left both prime ministers unable to pass legislation without relying on opposition members, and the very survival of the government was questionable should it be asked to pass a motion of confidence. Callaghan spent the majority of his time in office as a minority government, and thus formalised the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-8 to ensure the survival of the government and to allow legislation to pass. Agreements such as these are empowering for prime ministers in the respect that they gain the ability to pass legislation, but can also act as a severe limitation as prime ministers must negotiate with their partners to create a mutually acceptable policy platform.



Part and parcel with a gradual decline in a government majority comes the greater influence of party rebels. Realising their relative influence has increased, governments with small majorities are particularly productive for sectional interests. However, it must first be noted that the largest rebellions do not occur under coat-tails prime ministers. The two most recent record breaking rebellions were under Blair, both surrounding the Iraq War. The rebellion of March 2003 saw 139 Labour MPs vote against their party’s position (Ballots and Bullets 2013). While this obviously had huge political repercussions, this still did not result in a government defeat; Blair was safely insulated by his huge majority. In governments with very large majorities, rebellion can be widespread as the risk associated with rebellion is decreased. As the government is likely to pass legislation regardless of a number of individual rebellions, repercussions for these members are likely to be less. In contrast, for governments with small majorities, rebellion becomes incentivised by the fact that it will have a greater impact and quite possibly cause substantial change.

John Major came to understand the impact rebels could have when he famously lost the vote on the ‘social chapter’ of the Maastricht agreement through a tied division and the Speaker following procedure to vote against the government. This defeat was part of consistent rebellion and threats of rebellion from highly active Eurosceptic members of the party. A number of these ‘Maastricht rebels’ had the Conservative whip removed, but merely left Major with a more depleted majority, contributing along with by-election defeats and defection to the loss of his majority in December 1996. (Independent 1996)

While not to the extent of John Major, Gordon Brown too suffered with party rebellions even while insulated by his substantial majority. Despite having a majority of over 60, ‘larger than the majority of 44 with which Mrs Thatcher had managed between 1979 and 1983’ (Cowley and Stuart 2014: 4), Brown suffered the culmination of the rebellion at the end of Labour rule. Cowley and Stuart found that the period from 2005 to 2010 was the ‘most rebellious Parliament of the post-war era—and the Brown period was the most rebellious part of that 2005–10 Parliament.’ (Cowley and Stuart 2014: 7) Cowley and Stuart attribute this not to the performance of Brown himself, but rather ‘the problems of governing at the fag end of an extended period of one party rule’ (Cowley and Stuart 2014: 7), where party differences over ideological direction, allegiance to Blair or Brown, and grievances over policies such as counter-terrorism and war in Iraq came to a head.



Both in Parliament and in the party as a whole, divisions can emerge, varying between long term ideological splits, to allegiances to different party figures. Party unity is particularly pertinent for coat-tails prime ministers, who usually find themselves selected as the candidate to bring the party together. This division, despite the desire to rally around the new leader to give a stable footing for the next election, can be particularly disabling. By the very virtue of being a conciliator they have a degree of their decision making power stripped, as they must appease. They cannot use their own personal popularity to drag the party in a certain direction. The ability of Tony Blair to use electoral success and personal magnetism to haul the Labour Party to the right wasn’t available for Brown. Brown could not drag his party far to the left for fear of alienating Blairite support, nor could he move the party even further right lest he inflame the disillusioned, post-Iraq left wing. Party rebuilding and realigning tends to take place out of government. The long rebuilding of the Labour Party between 1983 and 1997, and the Conservative reconstruction of 2005 to 2010 are the most famous examples of this. Coat-tails prime ministers are faced with the near impossible task of doing this while still in power.

The need for coat-tails prime ministers to provide unity can be seen through their selection. The choice of Macmillan as leader is a case in point. The famous snubbing of R.A. Butler came through a lack of objections to Macmillan in the wake of the Suez crisis.  ‘Heath [the chief whip] told Salisbury that “the Suez Group would refuse to follow Rab, who they regarded as having been weak-kneed throughout, while the left wing of the Party, though they would have preferred Rab would accept Harold.”’ (Thorpe 2010: 361) Macmillan was the only individual whom both the Eden loyalist Suez group, and the party left would accept. Thorpe notes how the deciding factor was that ‘there was a small minority who were opposed to Butler at any price. As so often in Conservative leadership contests – May 1923, in particular, and later in October 1963 – the principle of negative choice was crucial. Who was against you was more important than who was for you’ (Thorpe 2010: 362).

The principle of negative choice is one that remains pertinent in the selections of all the post war coat tails prime ministers. As potential candidates set themselves out as leaders acceptable to all, they accept the need to heed to the demands of party wings, lest they be punished. John Major was torn apart by the competing demands of the Eurosceptic and Europhile wings of the Conservatives. In the Observer’s report of his famous ‘bastards’ comments, Major is quoted as saying ‘I could have all these clever, decisive things which people wanted me to do but I would have split the Conservative party into smithereens. And you would have said I had acted like a ham-fisted leader.’ (Observer 1993) Major clearly felt inhibited, unable to exercise his full power to act ‘clever’ and ‘decisive’ as prime minister thanks to party division. His 1995 ‘put up or shut up’ resignation and reelection reflected this constant division, and frustration at having his authority to act challenged. Party division is not just felt within parliament or the cabinet. Similarly, Callaghan suffered greatly with the wider Labour Party, outside of parliament.  Callaghan struggled despite ‘his prestige and dominance, especially since his links with the unions after his election as party treasurer in 1967, he had endless trouble as the NEC marched resolutely and almost unthinkingly to the left’ (Morgan 1997: 513).

Not all party divisions are as deeply ingrained and ideological as the ones suffered by Major and Callaghan. Macmillan, Douglas-Home, and Brown suffered from more personal divisions, between those who supported Butler or other leadership candidates, and between the Blairites and the Brownites. However, regardless of the depth of these divisions, they are representative of the structural issues affecting long term governments, and thus coat-tails prime ministers. These divisions further frustrate the ability for coat-tails prime ministers to carve a distinctive identity and develop a cohesive policy direction for the party.




All prime ministers and party leaders are expected to make their party electorally viable. They must be able to convince party members and MPs that they are successfully working toward victory at the next general election. The more convincingly this can be done, the greater support and leverage the leader has within the party, as they are trusted with making the right decisions for the party. For coat-tails prime ministers, this responsibility becomes particularly pertinent. Selected as the best individual to lead the party into the next general election, a coat-tails prime minister must reverse the decline in support generally associated with long-serving governments. The consistency with which coat-tails prime ministers have failed to reverse the declining fortunes of their governments is indicative that party support is structurally weak in long serving governments. This therefore impacts on the level of power coat-tails prime ministers can exercise over their government, unable to provide the level of support provided by other, election-winning prime ministers.



The lack of party support experienced by coat-tails prime ministers can most clearly be seen through comparing average party polling levels against their predecessor.

Predecessor Average Party Polling in Office (%) Coat-Tails Prime Minister Average Party Polling in Office (%)
Eden 46.0 Macmillan 41.5
Macmillan 41.5 Douglas-Home 41.7
Wilson (Feb 74-76) 42.7 Callaghan 40.9
Thatcher 39.2 Major 33.5
Blair 41.3 Brown 29.8
Data for Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson and Callaghan from Mark Pack 2016

Data for Thatcher, Major, Blair, and Brown from UK Polling Report 2016

Calculations by the author.   Figure 1


Generally, coat-tails prime ministers have a lower average party polling level than their immediate predecessors, translating into tangible differences between prime ministers in the power they command over their party. Lacking the overwhelming popularity Foley particularly associates with Blair’s Labour, these individuals cannot act ‘presidentially’ and dominate the party. Bold policy moves cannot be justified though their apparent popularity in the public, shown through support of the party. Prime ministerial tools of patronage becomes weakened, as faith in the prime minister to last beyond (or even to) the next general election are questioned. Ministers and MPs no longer need to curry favour with a leader who will be out of office soon, their time is best spent supporting viable leadership contenders.

While some polling differences shown may not be extreme, such as the small difference between Wilson and Callaghan and the increase between Macmillan and Douglas-Home, this data still illustrates the point that no coat-tails prime minister has managed to considerably raise support for their party overall. While it cannot be ignored that Major and Macmillan both won a general election, it is possible to argue, particularly in the case of Major, that this was an extended part of the gradual decline of the government as a whole, as opposed to a significant personal victory.

These averages imply that coat-tails prime ministers do not see their electoral fortunes renewed as they come into office, nor can they expect to achieve the popular heights of their predecessor. In spite of any benefits of incumbency, these premierships are more a continuation of malaise of the last prime minister than a renewal of fortunes. The question of ‘renewal’ is important for coat tails prime ministers. While average polling levels imply that coat-tails prime ministers find themselves no better off than their predecessors, the arrival of a coat-tails prime minister may be hailed as a turning of fortunes for the party at their arrival. A clear boost or ‘bounce’ in public approval occurs with the arrival of a new prime minister mid-parliament, and this phenomenon must be explained.



The departure of a prime minister, particularly one long in office, often comes with a removal of some of their personal baggage. While this is most clearly seen when a prime minister leaves office due to external pressures (Eden and Thatcher), this is also evident when a prime minister resigns of their own accord (Wilson and Blair). The relatively ‘clean slate’ of a new prime minister contributes to a ‘bounce’ in party fortunes when a new leader arrives. This is most clearly seen in the case of John Major and Gordon Brown.

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As Figures 2 and 3 illustrate, there is a clear increase in party support with a change of leader. This renewal is not just evident in polling. Many writers acknowledge a significant change in atmosphere at the time of accession. Regarding the Conservative’s recovery after Major replaced Thatcher, Tim Bale comments:

The question as to whether this stunning reversal of fortune really had more to do with Thatcher going than Major replacing her is an interesting one. But it was not one that most Tory MPs really cared about at the time: many of them were basically back from the dead (Bale 2010: 36)

Regardless of arguments as to whether this polling boost comes from the departure of a prime minister or the arrival of another, it cannot be denied that coat-tails prime ministers provide an initial polling stimulus for their party. In terms of prime ministerial power, this would indicate that coat-tails prime ministers at least begin with a degree of leverage over the party. As they quite possibly have brought the party ‘back from the dead’, they are afforded the ability to recast the shape of the party. However, one should not misinterpret this as a prime ministerial carte blanche. This reshaping of the party depends very much on the departing leader. As this party polling boost is a composite of both the arrival of the new leader and the departure of the former, the new ability to reshape the party comes with a commitment to reverse areas of failure from other.


Therefore, it is important not to overstate the inability for coat-tails prime ministers to assert their authority and personal stamp upon a party, but one must not conflate this ability with the ability for coat-tails prime ministers to move the locus of party ideology wholesale like a leader in opposition or early in government. This therefore still provides evidence that coat-tails prime ministers cannot be said to be ‘presidential’ or dominate cabinet in the way in which theorists of prime ministerial government argue.



The concurrent phenomena of a ‘coat-tails bounce’ and lower average polling indicates that initial boosts to polling are short lived. Gordon Brown and John Major never saw their party polling reach as high as the initial boost they experienced upon entering government. Political events were able to shape the polling of these prime ministers. John Major experienced a polling boost around the time of the 1992 election, and Gordon Brown saw a rise around 2008 financial crash, where he erroneously claimed to have ‘saved the world’ (Hansard 2008). However, neither of these events heralded a major reversal of the long term improvements in party polling from the exit of Thatcher and Blair respectively. This indicates that coat-tails prime ministers are severely limited in their ability to revive party support, and thus their relative electoral ‘failure’ may be down to structrual factors.

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While the pattern of a ‘bounce’ followed by a return to low polling levels cannot be as clearly seen in the cases of Macmillan, Douglas-Home, and Callaghan, they all (with the possible exception of Macmillan) cannot be seen as reversing the fortunes of the party.  For Callaghan and Douglas-Home, this meant going on to lose a general election and their removal as leader. Additionally, it is significant that since the war, no coat-tails prime minister has won multiple general elections, despite five out of the eight non coat-tails prime ministers having done so. Clearly the electoral viability of coat-tails prime ministers is limited by structural issues, rather than personal inadequacies.




The range of evidence presented so far serves to argue the point that, in general, coat-tails prime ministers are structurally weaker than prime ministers that come to power through a general election. This evidence does not, however, imply that all coat-tails prime ministers must suffer from all of these institutional restraints. The evidence merely shows that these constraints are more likely to arise for coat-tails prime ministers, and therefore, one cannot quickly proclaim the ever increasing power of the prime minister. For example, while only Callaghan and Major suffered from a small majority, this constraint is worth noting as depleted majorities arise late into governments, when coat tails prime ministers generally emerge.


Some other prime ministers struggle from the same institutional restraints as coat-tails prime ministers. Notably, the majority of the limitations faced by coat-tails prime ministers are shared with long-serving governments. They too suffer from a depleted set of policy ideas, and are also tainted with the legacy of political mistakes from the past. Nevertheless, by singling out coat-tail prime ministers, a historical trend can be identified. Throughout the post-war era, these prime ministers have emerged consistently, and are likely to emerge again. David Cameron’s confirmation that he will resign before the next general election seems to indicate that there will be a coat tails prime minister in the next few years. Through the consistency with which these prime ministers emerge, one can argue that they are a fact of life in the current British political system.


Therefore, one can now view the office of prime minister in a new light. There are likely to be more ‘presidential’ prime ministers in the future, who sweep to power through a landslide victory, but it is also likely there will be coat-tails prime ministers, who, as has been illustrated throughout, are institutionally weaker and thus take a more collegial approach. This view is supported by the ideas of Thomas Quinn, who has argued that British political parties currently operate in a system of ‘alternating predominance’ (Quinn 2013: 378-400). Quinn argues that since 1979, there has tended to be long, alternating periods of dominance by the two main parties. This indicates that long-serving governments are likely to be a common feature in British political life, and that coat-tails prime ministers will become a regular feature. Coat-tails prime ministers experience the declining limbs of government in Quinn’s cyclical model of party dominance.



Now that coat-tails prime ministers have been established as a feature of the British political landscape, they need to be understood in the context of debates around a ‘British Presidency’. The main conclusion to be drawn is that one cannot claim there is a ‘British Presidency’ when the British political system has consistently produced prime ministers that are structurally restricted from acting ‘presidentially’. Foley, however, does not ignore the idea of weak prime ministers. While emphasising mostly on Thatcher and Blair, he is faced with the seemingly contradictory interlude of John Major’s six and a half years in office. Foley does not see this period as an exception to his theory of a ‘British Presidency’. He argues that the

discomfiture of Major’s interregnum between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair bore witness to the continuities of contemporary drives and impulses towards centralised leadership (Foley 2000: 22)

Major seemingly was under pressure to be presidential. Foley argues

John Major was persistently criticised for adopting a more collegiate and inclusive style of decision making. As a consequence, he was subjected to a succession of leadership crises as his actions were continually appraised in relation to the very criteria of vigorous Thatcherite and presidential pretensions that he had originally sought to alleviate (Foley 2000: 22)

This is an extremely poor explanation of John Major’s issues with leadership. While it is true that Major had comparisons to Thatcher looming over him, his lack of power did not emerge for not being enough like her. Major’s lack of power over his party came from the institutional limitations explained above, with a party divided over Europe, struggling with a small majority after 1992, waning popularity, and an exhausted sense of political direction and policy ideas. To argue that Major’s style is the source of his weakness is to seriously misunderstand the interaction between political power and style. Major’s role as a conciliator was dictated him by circumstance, both in the need to bring together a weak and divided party, as well as to remove one of the most hated aspects of Thatcherism, the bullying leadership style.

The confusion between political power and style seems to be a constant issue in Foley’s work. Foley’s ‘spatial leadership’ is at points presented as a stylistic means through which power is increased, as ‘political authority is protected and cultivated by the creation of a sense of distance, and occasionally, detachment from government’ (Foley 2000: 31). This to put the cart before the horse. Distance from government or party comes as a benefit enjoyed as result of power. This style is best suited to newly elected party leaders, capitalising on a lack of previous political success, enjoying the absence of governmental responsibility that comes from being in opposition. Major and Brown could hardly disregard the Eurosceptics or Blairites and move themselves away from the party as a whole. They lacked the power to do this, as these leaders were not there to command the party to victory, but to steady the governmental ship. ‘Spatial leadership’ does not maximise the power of coat-tails prime ministers, rather, their position as leader of the government becomes more vital. By utilising the symbols of the office fully, they gain weight and credibility. Major, for example, utilised his position as leader of the Conservative Party fully, by withdrawing the whip from a number of Maastricht Rebels, and calling a leadership election in 1995 to reassert his power. Foley’s confusion and occasional conflation between power and style serves to detriment his argument as a whole.

In many ways, Foley’s argument best serves as an analysis of political strength. Foley gives a comprehensive account of the way in which leaders such as Thatcher and Blair create a personal ideology which they move political parties toward. By formalising the way in which political success results in personal freedom for leaders Foley helps explain why some leaders seem to dominate the political arena more than their parties. However, Foley’s main claim, that of a ‘British Presidency’, is not fully justified. What Foley has done, however, is create a compelling case that a presidential stylistic norm is becoming established in the UK. This is not that the position of prime minister is now a presidency, rather, that the presidential style is popular with the electorate. This, however, should not be confused with political power. Blair was able to utilise the presidential style as he was powerful. Major did not fail as he did not utilise it, rather, he lacked the power for the presidential style to be successful.


This essay has made of number of different claims throughout. The most basic claim made has been that coat-tails prime ministers are generally weaker than other prime ministers as a result of institutional factors. This point has been fully justified, and considered at a number of different levels, from within the executive, to the electorate at large. The key strength in the evidence given for this claim was the non-prescriptive method of describing common institutional issues. By highlighting the fact that not all coat-tails prime ministers have suffered from exactly the same institutional restrictions, and not all to the same extent, historical accuracy has been maintained despite attempting to find a clear consistent pattern between coat-tails prime ministers.

Secondly, it has been claimed that coat-tails prime ministers provide evidence to disprove classic arguments of an ever creeping level of prime ministerial power. This has been achieved to a great extent. The idea that each prime minister is more powerful than the last is a very simplistic version of the theory of prime ministerial government, but none the less could be held by those who see the position of prime minister as gaining more constitutional powers over time. While this trend may or may not be true, what this essay seeks to highlight is that prime ministerial prerogatives mean nothing when the individual in office lacks the political power to fully exercise these. To the theories of Mackintosh and Crossman, the theory of coat-tails prime ministers provides a reminder that while the cabinet may become overlooked by some prime ministers, it still does hold on to its historical powers when a prime minister is weakened and cannot override it. This is a more nuanced version of the argument that springs up perennially to argue that cabinet and parliament remain dominant over the prime minister as they have, at an incredibly infrequent rate, deposed prime ministers in the past. The fact that Thatcher was challenged out of office does not represent evidence that cabinet and parliament are dominant, merely that they can exercise some power on rare occasion. Coat-tails prime ministers represent the fact that cabinet and parliament can exercise power consistently at times of prime ministerial weakness.

The third and boldest claim made is that coat tails prime ministers represent a challenge to Foley’s idea of a ‘British Presidency’. This has been achieved. This essay does not challenge Foley’s ideas of political style. British politics may have become more presidential in the respect that prime ministers have to take on a presidential, more individual tone, nor does it object to the idea that prime ministers are now judged in the same way presidents are. It objects to the idea that the premiership is ‘moving further and further away from the anchorages of the traditional conception of prime minister’ (Foley 2000: 330). As has been consistently shown throughout this essay, prime ministers remain deeply constrained by their institutional anchorages. While for periods these anchorages, the executive, legislature, and electorate, may allow a prime minister particular dominance or hegemony in their exercise of power, they still remain present. For weak prime ministers, these anchorages can become institutional limitations, and while they may remain dormant for periods, they consistently re-emerge, and come to dominate the premierships of many prime ministers. The study of political weakness is as important as the study of political strength.  Academic emphasis on strong prime ministers and leaders can blind us to the wide variation between the individuals to hold the premiership over the last fifty years.




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