Skip to main content

From the archives

Being prime minister is an impossible job

Theresa May’s tearful resignation speech in 2019

When he was prime minister from 1902 to 1905, Arthur Balfour “spent as much time as he could on his 180,000-acre Scottish estate”, says The Economist. He whiled away the days playing golf, and the evenings enjoying long dinners and after-dinner games. “The one thing that didn’t get a look-in was politics.” It was a subject, Balfour told his sister, to which his mind “did not naturally turn”. He didn’t bother reading newspapers on the (very sensible) basis that “nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all”. How things have changed. Today’s prime ministers “spend every waking hour trying to master events, only to be broken by them in the end”. What’s happened? “Why has Balfour’s easy chair become so uncomfortable?”

The reality is that leading this country is now an “impossible task”. British PMs “have to perform a wider range of jobs than almost any other world leader”: head of government, party boss, fund-raiser, parliamentary performer, foreign envoy, national grief counsellor, local MP. “No prime minister can do all these jobs well.” Some of this “overstretch” is because PMs have centralised power. Secretaries of state used to have much more freedom and sway; today, “all ideas come from No 10”. But other factors are making the job harder, too: our increasingly “hyperactive” media; a growing willingness among MPs to rebel against their party. As the Queen reportedly told Boris Johnson when appointing him: “I don’t know why anyone would want the job.”

💰📉 If Britain wants better prime ministers, says Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail, it needs to start paying its politicians more. When MPs first started drawing a salary in 1911, they received the modern equivalent of £260,000, “putting them alongside the very top professionals”. Today, it’s £84,000. Obviously it would be “bonkers” for MPs to demand a pay rise, given the economic climate. But “you get what you pay for”.