The 7 shortest serving UK prime ministers in modern history

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson's term as PM of the United Kingdom began on 24 July 2019 | Image: Michael Tubi / Shutterstock.com

With the resignation of Boris Johnson on 7 July 2022 just 2 years and 348 days into his premiership - a process that will lead to the appointment of a new PM - we look at some of the shortest serving Prime Ministers in modern history.

The role of the prime minister isn’t always the gift it seems to be. While some dream of the position from childhood, others take up the reins simply to avoid letting the side down. Only two prime ministers have remained in the role for more than a decade in the last half-century, with both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher cutting quite controversial paths throughout their careers.

But what about the other side? Those PMs at the opposite end of the spectrum whose time at the top wasn’t illustrious or nearly as extensive? The man who holds the quite unfortunate crown of ‘Shortest Serving PM’ is George Canning. He remained in power for just 119 days in 1827 before passing away at the age of 57.

Let’s take a closer look at six more unfortunate leaders that are a bit fresher in the memory and what exactly ended their short tenure in prime position.

1. Sir Alec Douglas-Home – 1 year, 1 day

Just scraping it past his one-year anniversary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister in October 1963 after Harold Macmillan resigned during a Conservative Party crisis. Old-fashioned and out of touch, Douglas-Home narrowly lost the 1964 election to the avuncular, pipe-smoking Harold Wilson.

His premiership was fairly unremarkable, with his aristocratic background seeing him pitted against the trade unions, but nothing much else of note. He was crafty enough to foil his own kidnap attempt in 1964, as two leftwing students attempted to abduct him but were easily plied with wit (and a few beers).


2. Sir Anthony Eden – 1 year, 279 days

After taking control of the Conservative government in the 1950s, it was the Suez Crisis that led to Sir Anthony Eden’s position becoming untenable. Despite stating ill health as the grounds for his departure, Parliament believed his exit was down to his apparent misleading of them over his collusion with France and Israel.

3. Gordon Brown – 2 years, 318 days

The British public is never a big fan of unelected leaders, so when former Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown took over from his pal Tony in Number 10, opinion polls did not paint a happy picture. Brown had the unfortunate job of chartering the country through the financial crisis and was convincingly defeated by David Cameron at the 2010 General Election.

Gordon Brown
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a press conference in Berlin in 2017 | Image: 360b / Shutterstock.com

4. Boris Johnson (incumbent) - 2 years, 348 days (+)

Boris Johnson's career as prime minister has not been without controversy. Trying to steer the UK through a global pandemic and the backend of the Brexit deals, Johnson’s bombastic attitude has made him a figure of both adulation and contempt. The divisive nature of his character means his premiership was often in question, even within his own party.

With his government collapsing under a series of self-inflicted scandals, a succession of devastating ministerial resignations dealt Johnson's premiership a fatal body blow. On 7 July 2022, after two days of high political drama, Boris Johnson resigned as Conservative leader. He will continue to serve as Prime Minister while a leadership contest will take place during the summer to find his successor.

5. Neville Chamberlain – 2 years, 348 days

The naivety of Neville Chamberlain has remained one of the main memories we all have of him. Returning from peace talks (if you can have such a thing) with Adolf Hitler, Chamberlain declared, “I believe it is peace for our time” in September 1938. He couldn’t have been more wrong and didn’t last much longer in the top job after the outbreak of the Second World War.


6. Theresa May – 3 years, 11 days

If there was ever a case of the poison chalice, Mrs. May is an example. Better known as a ’Dancing Queen’ than a high-performing PM, Theresa May took office in 2016, as David Cameron jumped ship after the Brexit referendum. A near impossible task, May took hold of the government at a highly contentious time. Her Brexit deal was repeatedly defeated in Parliament, and this meant, by June 2019, her resignation was tendered too, managing just a smidge over three years in her dream job.

London, UK. 15 May, 2018. Prime Minister Theresa May attends the exclusive unveiling of the team selected to represent the UK at the Invictus Games Sydney 2018.
Prime Minister Theresa May attends the the Invictus Games Sydney 2018 | Image: LINGTREN.COM / Shutterstock

7. Jim Callaghan – 3 years, 29 days

Jim Callaghan was the victim of the machine led by Margaret Thatcher. He was Labour’s fourth Prime Minister but no match for the popularity and drive behind Thatcher. Callaghan had to contend with record unemployment rates and huge levels of discontent, making it an easy win for his opponent when she came to power in 1979

In conclusion

Many of our shortest reigning PMs have had good reason for the difficulties they’ve faced. Choosing to take control amidst crises or handling some of the biggest historical moments of the last century takes guts, but will inevitably lead to criticism. However, a short tenure doesn’t necessarily mean one without incident, and some of these PMs will be remembered more for the events that surrounded them than their actions in office.


Did you know?

The UK's longest serving Prime Minister was Sir Robert Walpole who served 20 years, 314 days.