Deja vu all over again: History repeats itself with Sunak versus Truss

American media commentator Will Rogers.
American media commentator Will Rogers.

So who is going to be our next prime minister? Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss (in alphabetical order) are telling us that disaster is on the horizon, and only they can avert it. Inflation, drought, the Northern Ireland protocol, militant unions, climate change, covid, energy prices, and the war in Ukraine are only a few of the problems that have to be tackled; it certainly doesn’t look as if either of the candidates is going to have a lot of time to hold parties in Downing Street if they gain the necessary support..

Who then do members of the Conservative party vote for?

Fortunately, there is precedent. It was during the Slump in America almost a century ago. The two candidates for the presidency were also advising the American people that only their victory in the forthcoming presidential campaign could possibly save the nation.

There was at the time a famous American media commentator called Will Rogers. He only lived to be 56 but in his time he was very influential. He went on the radio and gave his opinion. He said that if the two candidates would just go away for the weekend, the American people could decide which of them was the lesser of the two evils!

Rishi Sunak.

At this point it doesn’t appear that either of our two will go down in history alongside Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But then you can never tell.

The opposition to Churchill becoming prime minister was fierce and Thatcher and Blair were forced to resign. The behaviour of prime ministers was also judged by different standards over the centuries.

An MP was talking to Benjamin Disraeli, the head of the Conservative party in the Commons, about the Liberal prime minister, Henry Palmerston. Now Lord Palmerston was well known  for  his extra-marital relations with various women and was particularly disliked by Queen Victoria for his escapades.

The MP asked Disraeli if he had heard of Palmerston’s latest affaire. Disraeli told him to keep quiet about it or Palmerston would win the forthcoming election by a landslide. Which, in fact he did.

Of course, prime ministers need the right image and this is often carefully manufactured as well. Harold Wilson was often seen with a pipe firmly clenched in his mouth, though in private his taste was for cigars. Lord Melbourne is known for his excellent work in advising the young Queen Victoria, but the attempt to blackmail him for his relationship with Caroline Norton, by her husband, is very much a footnote.

Earl Granville, a 19th century foreign secretary, said that he had known nine prime ministers, five of whom had committed adultery.

It can be an exhausting job being a prime minister. Stanley Baldwin went through the crisis when Edward VIII abdicated, but he had stand down thereafter because he was absolutely knackered. Churchill, incidentally, was on the King’s side.

In David Lloyd George’s time there was a very nasty scandal about selling honours. My great grandfather was, in fact, offered a knighthood for £10,000 (£500,000 today), but didn’t consider it value for money. Lloyd George had taken over from Herbert Asquith, whose love letters to the aristocratic Venetia Stanley are now available in book form.

William Gladstone was prime minister on four occasions in the 19th century and on many evenings ventured into the streets to try to save prostitutes from their profession. When, after his death, it was suggested that he had other objectives, his son, who had been home secretary, was involved in the court case, Wright vs Gladstone,  and won when the jury voted in his favour and exonerated his father..

Earl Granville, a 19th century foreign secretary, said that he had known nine prime ministers, five of whom had committed adultery.

Well, whoever wins, it won’t be that difficult to set higher social standards than many of their predecessors. The question remains why a politician has to be judged by his private life.

If you were running a major company, your private life would not affect the shareholders when it came to reelect the directors. It’s the dividend that counts. I would like the politicians to solve our problems.

Their private lives, I suggest, are less important.

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book