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These reflections obscure a more fundamental point. The essence of the position of British prime minister is that at least in theory, and quite often in practice, he or she can be dismissed at a moment’s notice. In the midst of Downing Street, the prime minister is in death. It is very difficult to stay at the top for long. The average length of time that a PM has spent in office, not always in a single stint, is five and a half years. Nor has the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, passed in 2011 so the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could carry on their coalition for a full five years without each party fearing the other might spring a general election on it, abolished this sudden-death tradition. Cameron felt obliged to declare at breakfast-time on the morning after the EU referendum that he would not be carrying on. He had encompassed his own downfall by a different but no less deadly method from the traditional overthrow either by voters in a general election (in recent decades, James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown have gone in that way), or by rebels within the PM’s own party who reckon the leader has become an electoral liability (Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair).

This is part of our understanding of liberty. We are a free country because we can at any moment get rid of whoever is in charge. Throughout her 11 years and 209 days in power, Margaret Thatcher could have been chucked overboard, and she knew it. At the start of the 1980s, when unemployment rose to three million and great swathes of British industry collapsed, the general view was that unless, like Edward Heath, she did a U-turn, she was finished. The Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the Brighton bomb and the Westland affair could all have precipitated her downfall long before the poll tax and disagreements about Europe brought about her defeat by her own MPs. Many of her colleagues detested her, she managed to fall out even with ministers such as Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe who agreed with most of what she was doing, and the longer her leadership went on, the more unbearable it seemed to her rivals that she was allowing none of them a turn at being prime minister. In retrospect, it is surprising, not that she was thrown overboard at the end of 1990, but that she lasted so long.

We need a crisis, or a series of crises, in part because these can be turned into opportunities to turn out the prime minister, and sometimes the whole government. Commentators tend to deplore whatever difficulties we happen to be passing through, lamenting that these are the worst since the Second World War, or at least since Suez, and conveniently overlooking all the troubles which have occurred since then, which seemed bad enough at the time. They write on the unspoken assumption, welcome to whoever is in power at the time, that security is the highest political good. A degree of security is of course desirable, indeed necessary, but too much is dangerous to liberty. Parliamentary politics would perish, or atrophy, if we had nothing serious to argue about. The prime minister ought almost always to be in danger, at risk of being eclipsed by figures within his or her own party as well as by the leader of the opposition.
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