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Lesser-known premiers: Viscount Goderich (1827-28); Andrew Bonar Law (1922-23) and Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64) (BONAR LAW: LOC. DOUGLAS-HOME: ANEFO/NATIONAALARCHIEF)

I am ashamed at how woefully ignorant I was before reading this book about all but the handful of our prime ministers who had attracted my attention. The two Pitts, because I was born in the village where they lived; Disraeli, because Robert Blake’s biography reignited my generation’s enthusiasm for that unlikely Tory hero; Gladstone, to hear the other side of the story; and Salisbury, who appealed to me most of all, thanks to Andrew Roberts’s biography. In addition, there have been 14 prime ministers during my lifetime. But I tacitly assumed that there was little to learn from most of the others and devoted my reading to political ideas from Burke and Paine through Marx and Hayek to De Jouvenel and Powell.

Gimson’s superb portraits of all 54 prime ministers — from Walpole to May — shows how mistaken I was to neglect them.

He explains that when inveigled by Oliver Letwin into working for the Conservative Research Department, he immersed himself in political history “to avoid suffering from a kind of self-inflicted short-sightedness”. Would that more of the political class were so far-sighted! But because biographies tend to be long, he “wished there was a short book where I could begin by acquainting myself with the whole sweep of British political history over the last three centuries, told in the form of brief lives”. This book fills that gap and does so magnificently. It could hardly be done better.

His pen portraits of our 54 prime ministers are lucid, pithy and perceptive. Somehow, in a few pages each, he manages to take us through their background, character, career, the issues that dominated their ministry and their legacy — if any. The whole is a galloping good read but also the sort of book that sparks ideas about how our political system works, the role of prime ministers and how it has changed.

As Gimson points out, and his portraits demonstrate, no two prime ministers are alike. Moreover, “very few are complete duds . . . for the Commons can detect a dud as soon as he or she begins to speak . . . the three greatest failures — Lords Bute, Aberdeen and Rosebery — failed because they had never sat in the Commons.”

The two PMs under whom I served — Thatcher and Major — could not have been more different.

Thatcher’s abrasive, dominant self-assurance upset some and made others assume she was reckless. Major’s more ameliorative, collegiate style was more a function of his fragile parliamentary majority than personal weakness.

In fact, Margaret Thatcher was, as Gimson recognises, extremely cautious. Out of caution she subjected all ideas, including those that appealed to her, to rigorous debate. But her willingness to argue was often mistaken for intolerance of other people’s views.
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