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Conservative backwoodsmen ended up treating one of their most remarkable leaders, Robert Peel, as a renegade, despite the formative role he had played in the creation of their party. Labour MPs came to regard Ramsay MacDonald, who had done so much to create and lead their parliamentary party, as the worst traitor of all. The role of prime minister is essentially a sacrificial one.

Not that those who compete against each other for it are inclined to see it in this light. They believe they will be powerful, and they assure us they have the solutions we seek, however disappointing their predecessors may have proved. And it is true that most of them have a honeymoon period during which we allow ourselves to share in their optimism, for as voters we are torn between conflicting impulses. We long to believe we have found a saviour, but are determined to overthrow whoever fails to save us. We allow the stage to be dominated for a time by a successful prime minister, but then restore equality, for which all democracies have a deep desire, by dragging that individual back down to our own level, often with brutal abruptness.

In The Myth of the Strong Leader, Archie Brown points out that the greatest leaders, who in recent British history have included Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, are collegiate figures, who assemble strong coalitions of gifted people, rather than pretending they can do it all by exercising their superhuman personal abilities. Too strong a leader, who pretends always to know best and ignores contrary advice, debilitates his or her own party, and often leads the country to disaster. As prime minister, Anthony Eden wanted to show how decisive he was. He was a gifted but thin-skinned man, excellent in subordinate positions, but deeply hurt by press criticism once he got to the top. Rather than allow his ministerial colleagues to get on with it, he harassed them morning, noon and night. And he wished to prove that far from being a ditherer, which in truth he was, he could take masterful action to deal with a dictator. Hence the Suez debacle.

Archie Brown is particularly severe on Tony Blair, observing that the great Labour victory of 1997, for which the new prime minister appropriated the lion’s share of the credit, would actually have happened whoever was in charge:

The landslide — an overall Labour majority of 179 — itself owed much to an electoral system which translates a fairly modest increase in popular votes into a disproportionately great advantage in seats. Labour’s share of the popular vote was lower in 1997 than in all elections between 1945 and 1966, including those which Labour lost. The Conservatives, however, fared catastrophically. They had their lowest share of the vote of the century, as well as their worst result since  1906 in terms of seats. They had become so unpopular that any Labour leader who did not “self-destruct” would have led the party to an overall majority of well over a hundred seats in the House of Commons. Bartle and Crewe calculate  that had Major and Blair “been evaluated equally favourably, Labour’s majority would have been cut from 11.9 to 11.0 points, altering the outcome in just four seats”.
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