Lloyd Evans

Yesterday’s nearly-men

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The Prime Ministers Who Never Were: A Collection of Political Counterfactuals

edited by Francis Beckett

Biteback, pp. 243, £

Francis Beckett has come up with an intriguing new brand of political history. The Prime Ministers Who Never Were selects 14 of Britain’s nearly-men and imagines how they’d have fared in the top job. The big beasts are reduced to footnotes and the prat-fallers occupy centre stage. Beckett himself writes the story of Labour in the 1990s without the modernisers, and 13 other contributors cover the rest.

John Smith survives his heart attack in 1994 and wins a 99-seat majority in 1997. His first act is to scrap the Millennium Dome, which Beckett describes as ‘a now long-forgotten proposal to build a vast round shed in Greenwich … which no one could find a use for’. The Tories re-group under Michael Portillo who tacks to the centre and invents something called ‘The Third Way’. Labour’s new Home Secretary, Tony Blair, denounces it as ‘vacuous’.

Smith fails to bond with George W. Bush, who regards him as a ‘louche, lazy, pinkish European’. Their mutual antipathy keeps Britain on the side of the French during the build-up to the Iraq War. In 2002, Smith resigns suddenly, and gives his chosen successor, Gordon Brown, a week to prepare his bid for power. Despite the leg-up, Brown is outmanouevred by his main rival: not Blair but Ken Livingstone. This coup, as the author sweepingly asserts, leads to ‘ten years of municipal socialism’.

The temptation to indulge in mischievous gags like that undermines Beckett’s claim that ‘counterfactual history matters’. The book works better, oddly enough, when it sticks to established truths. Anne Perkins, describing the premiership of Michael Foot, lays out his inadequacies bluntly:

He disliked telling people what to do and he hated restricting the liberty of others. He also had a dangerous tendency always to see the best even in the most awkward of colleagues.

Absolutely right. The wild-haired, stick-waving wizard of Hampstead was scarcely fit to lead a Neighbourhood Watch scheme, let alone a government.

Hugh Purcell offers an admirably balanced view of a Halifax premiership in 1940. The arch-appeaser would have lasted no more than two months, Purcell argues, after trying and failing to make peace with Hitler.

The gravitational tug of Churchill is irresistible and Purcell devotes at least half his essay to the leader-in-waiting. He reminds us how unfit for office Churchill seemed in 1940. The architect of Gallipoli had spent the opening months of the war deepening his reputation as a rash and impetuous militarist. He called for immediate action against Eire when the war began.  

He had made a disastrous broadcast in January 1940 in which he had described neutral countries as burying their heads in the sand, hoping that the German crocodile would eat its neighbours first; and then, in April and May, he had been responsible operationally for the Norwegian fiasco.

Baldwin perfectly captures parliament’s scepticism about Churchill: ‘While we delight to hear him in the House we do not take his advice.’

The book’s most extraordinary visit to political Disneyland comes from Diane Hayter, a Labour peer. Her fictional account of Denis Healey’s premiership is a triple-thick slice of treacle pudding served up by a besotted fanatic. All Healey’s faults, his volatility, tactlessness, ill temper and boundless self-regard, are transmuted into virtues. ‘An incurable optimist, with a deep inner exuberance,’ is how she describes his insensitivity and his taste for off-colour jokes.

She has a lot of fun re-writing the Westland crisis with Healey, not Kinnock, as opposition leader. Healey inflicts fatal damage on Mrs Thatcher during the Commons debate, and in the following year’s election he poses as ‘Father Christmas against the Wicked Witch of the West’. He mocks his opponent ‘by singing “if she only had a brain” while running rings around her intellectually’. Lady Hayter assumes that this sort of misogynistic triumphalism would play well with the voters. Maybe she’s right. She records with relish that during the 1987 campaign, ‘a junior party official’ named Peter Mandelson was dismissed by Healey for ‘inept attempts to plant stories in the media’.

Healey wins a thumping majority, spurns President Reagan and embraces eastern Europe. After the Berlin Wall collapses, he prevents a bungling Helmut Kohl from making elementary blunders in the newly freed East. And he helps stabilise Germany by proposing ‘a Euro-German body’ to encourage inward investment with ‘guaranteed UK assistance’. Yes, well. The idea that Britain in 1990, on the brink of a recession, might have propped up the German powerhouse is a trifle fanciful. But then trifles and fancies are what this venture is all about.

Most of the writers are of a leftish tendency and they share a morbid nostalgia for the moral purity of Old Labour. If that’s your bag, this is your book.