Zenga Longmore

Ghosts of No. 10

Perhaps because he lost the American colonies — or was reputedly very ugly. But his wit is fondly celebrated in Gimson’s Prime Ministers

If you associate Lord Salisbury more with a pub than with politics, here is Andrew Gimson to the rescue, with succinct portraits of every prime minister to have graced — or disgraced — No. 10 to date. You will find no trace of waspish mockery in his book. In a time when heroes are constantly being debunked, its kindly, intelligent tone appears refreshingly old-fashioned.

The flamboyant Robert Walpole makes for an ideal scene-setter. In 1721 he invented the office of prime minister and held it for longer than any of his successors — a full 21 years. Plump, affable and crude, with an astute business sense, he managed to amass a fortune by ingratiating himself with the first two Hanoverians and getting out of the South Sea Bubble in the nick of time. Rogue though he was, his shameless love of luxury, hunting and women — his mistress Molly was 25 years his junior — makes him infinitely more likeable than our priggish present- day leaders.

Even Lord North appears soft and cuddly. He may have lost the American colonies through bungling mismanagement, but he was so witty that all is forgiven. When asked to identify ‘that plain looking lady’, he replied amiably that she was his wife. His embarrassed companion tried to recover by saying: ‘No, no. I meant the dreadful monster sitting next to her.’ ‘That, sir, is my daughter,’ North replied. ‘We are considered to be three of the ugliest people in London.’ He died in 1792, fearing his reputation would be wrecked by the loss of America. Fortunately for his ghost, history is not taught well in schools these days, so he has no reputation whatever. As far as I know, he doesn’t even have a pub named after him.

Gimson, a political journalist and former parliamentary sketchwriter for the Daily Telegraph, has a deep understanding of his subjects and his pithy prose enlivens even the dullest PMs.

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