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Frederick North

The worst prime ministers from British history

The role of British Prime Minister is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Therefore, it's unsurprising that there have been a few whose tenures have been less than satisfactory.

Image: Frederick North | Public Domain

To date, there have been 55 men and three women who have risen to the highest political office in the land. Robert Walpole is generally considered to be the first Prime Minister, and since his appointment in 1721 there have been some great PMs, some not-so-great PMs and, to put it bluntly, some absolute stinkers. Here we take a look at some of the worst Prime Ministers in British history.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1762 – 1763)

The first Scot to rise to the office of Prime Minister, Stuart was trusted with the position primarily because he was very good friends with George III. His signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War proved unpopular with the public for its lenient treatment of France. Equally as unpopular was his introduction of a tax on cider, which led to riots and proved once again that it is never a good idea to mess with the British and their booze.

Accused of having an affair with the Dowager Princess of Wales (which didn’t go down well with the public either), Stuart was an extremely unpopular Prime Minister. He resigned in 1763 after just 317 days in office.

Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1768 – 1770)

Fitzroy became Prime Minister in 1768 at the age of 33. As PM, he struggled to get a handle on foreign affairs, in particular the loss of Britain’s ally, the Republic of Corsica, to the French. This and other disastrous failures eventually led to Grafton resigning in 1770, handing the reins to the equally useless Lord North.

It is for his messy private life that Fitzroy is now perhaps best remembered. In 1764, he began a very public affair with the socialite Nancy Parsons. His displays of affection for his mistress - including once being caught in flagrante with her at the opera - scandalised polite society. To add insult to injury, he then went on to divorce his long-suffering wife and marry Parsons - something that was beyond the pale in the 18th century.

Lord Frederick North (1770 – 1782)

Whenever anyone asks who the worst PM of all time was, one name crops up more than any other - Lord Frederick North. It is North who refused to abandon the Tea Act, which forced subjects in the Thirteen Colonies to buy East India Company tea and pay taxation to the Crown, while undercutting smugglers, merchants and artisans. Furious at the imposition of taxation without representation, North’s stubbornness led to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolutionary War that saw Britain lose its colonies.

North was universally blamed for the catastrophic loss and resigned in disgrace in 1782.

Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1812 – 1827)

Jenkinson became PM following the assassination of Spencer Perceval in 1812. A competent, intelligent man, Liverpool would not have made this list were it not for one of the most notorious incidents of the 19th century - the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819.

The working poor and soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars demanded reform but were instead met with repressive legislation from Jenkinson. During the resulting protests, 18 were killed and hundreds injured when members of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and the 15th Hussars mounted a sabres-drawn cavalry charge into the unarmed crowd. The public was horrified and Jenkinson’s reputation as a decent Prime Minister was tarnished forever.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1828 – 1830 and 1834)

It should have come as no surprise that one of the country’s most successful military leaders carried on like he was directing an army when he became Prime Minister. A brash and overbearing man who did not suffer fools gladly, Wellington expected people to follow his orders when he was running the country in the same way they’d done at the Battle of Waterloo. He was said to find the questioning of his commands in cabinet an ‘extraordinary affair’.

Growing public enthusiasm for electoral reform was in the air when the Iron Duke took office, and it was something he was adamantly against. His opposition to expanding the franchise and getting rid of rotten boroughs led to the windows of his London mansion being smashed by angry reformers. Unbowed, Wellington continued to be against reform for the rest of his life. His government fell in 1830. When the Tories were returned to power in 1834, Wellington, still reeling from his previous stint at the top, refused to become Prime Minister again, but acted as an interim for just three weeks.

Arthur Balfour (1902 – 1905)

Balfour succeeded to the office of Prime Minister when his uncle, Lord Salisbury, stepped down in 1902. He quickly upset members of his own party by abandoning the principles of free trade in favour of imperial protectionism. He then lost the support of the public over his handling of the latter stages of the Boer War and the introduction of Chinese labourers to South African mines, which many saw as nothing short of reintroducing slavery.

Balfour resigned as PM in 1905. The following year, the Conservatives lost power in a crushing Liberal Party landslide. Worse still for Balfour personally, he lost his own seat in Parliament.

Neville Chamberlain (1937 – 1940)

Perhaps history would have treated Neville Chamberlain more kindly had it not been for a certain continental dictator, but that is the hand he was dealt and he played it extremely badly. Becoming PM in 1937 at a time of growing tension on the continent, Chamberlain was keen to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the Great War. His policy of appeasement led to the signing of the Munich Agreement, which handed over the German-speaking Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler in what Chamberlain hoped would mark the end of the dictator’s expansionist ambitions. It did no such thing, and Chamberlain realised he’d been taken for a fool when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

Unable to gain enough support to lead a wartime cross-party coalition, Chamberlain resigned in May 1940 and died of cancer six months later. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill (1940 – 1945 and 1951 – 1955)

A controversial choice, but it’s worth remembering that Winston Churchill had a second crack at Prime Minister and it didn’t go well at all. Re-elected in 1951 at the age of 77, Churchill was not a well man, having suffered a series of strokes. Expected to step down in 1953 following the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Churchill soldiered on after his expected successor, Anthony Eden, became seriously ill. Despite having another debilitating stroke that left him partially paralysed, his failing health was kept secret from the public and he stayed in place until 1955.

Convinced that the world was lurching towards another war and obsessed with immigration and the loss of the British Empire, Churchill was negligent of home affairs and was not much missed when he stepped down in 1955.

Anthony Eden (1955 – 1957)

Nobody hammered home the point that Great Britain was a diminished power after the Second World War quite like Anthony Eden. Seen as the natural successor to Churchill, Eden’s short-lived premiership would come to be dominated and ultimately destroyed by the Suez Crisis.

When the Egyptian government nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, Eden sent British troops alongside Israeli and French soldiers to take the canal back. The USA was furious and threatened Britain with sanctions. The threat forced Eden to back down and withdraw his forces. When it then transpired that a plan was in place to seize the canal before Egypt’s nationalisation, Eden was found to have lied to parliament. He resigned as Prime Minister shortly after, less than two years into the job.