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Life in No 10

Three centuries of a “nightmare” job

Robert Walpole and Boris Johnson. Hulton Archive/Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Boris Johnson would have got on with Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s “rumbustious” first prime minister, says Anthony Seldon in The Times. Like the current PM, Walpole was a skilled communicator with “dubious” personal morals – you can easily imagine the two old Etonians ribbing each other over dinner. This week marks 300 years since Walpole invented the office of PM, and Boris is the title’s 55th holder. So how does he stack up? Will he land on the scrapheap of history, mostly forgotten, like Viscount Goderich, Arthur Balfour and the Earl of Bute? Or could he muscle and bluster his way into the elite ranks of Gladstone, Churchill and Thatcher? He has shown “flashes of brilliance”, says Seldon, but it’s early days. The verdict of history is still wide open. “Hero or dud? No one knows.”

What we do know, says Dominic Sandbrook in UnHerd, “as Walpole and Johnson would be delighted to agree”, is that successful prime ministers are almost never paragons of virtue. There’s Gladstone, of course, “never happier than when hewing logs, redeeming prostitutes or writing a commentary on Homer”, but he is the exception, not the rule. Johnson’s critics accuse him of being lazy, lusty and dilettantish, as if his predecessors were all “martyrs to their paperwork”. In reality he fits perfectly well into the run of British prime ministers. Herbert Henry Asquith spent long afternoons playing bridge with pretty girls and was outraged when the start of World War One stymied a country-house weekend with a mistress 25 years his junior. Stanley Baldwin was flogged at Harrow for writing amateur pornography and took “legendarily long” summer holidays in Aix-les-Bains. And what about that “crook and sex pest” David Lloyd George, who flogged peerages for cash, kept a longstanding mistress in Downing Street and had an affair with his son’s wife? By these standards Boris looks “positively saintly”.

He certainly can’t operate quite so shamelessly, says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. Admittedly he parachuted his brother, “along with a band of Brexit and media cronies”, into the House of Lords. But Walpole used a secret service fund to bribe colleagues and buy parliamentary votes. Even Boris can’t do that. And there’s a great deal more to the job these days. The frenetic pace of events and the rapid responses demanded by the 24/7 media mean the prime minister’s job is mostly “firefighting”. The crushing pressures of No 10 leave scant time for reflection and planning, let alone the “big dreams” PMs typically arrive with. When he was installed in Downing Street, Johnson returned from Buckingham Palace after his maiden interview with the Queen to report back to his inner circle. He was overheard telling staff that Her Majesty had said to him: “I don’t know why anyone would want the job.” Quite.