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These questions are on my mind because I have just written brief lives of all 54 British prime ministers since Sir Robert Walpole (Gimson’s Prime Ministers, Square Peg, £10.99), in power from 1721-42 and conventionally regarded as the first PM, for he set a pattern of constitutional practice which has endured to this day. Whatever other qualities a PM may require, he or she must be able to command a majority in the House of Commons: a beautifully simple yet difficult criterion to fulfil. This means, incidentally, that very few of our PMs have been complete duds, for the Commons can tell if someone is hopelessly stupid the moment he or she begins to speak. It also makes it difficult for someone who is flagrantly disreputable to make it to the top, for MPs will perceive this to be the case, and will find it too embarrassing to vote for such a person. Once David Lloyd George started in a more and more shameless way to sell honours, the withdrawal in 1922 of Conservative support from his post-war coalition was pretty much certain. Stanley Baldwin, at this point an obscure but emerging Tory MP, said Lloyd George had a “morally disintegrating effect” on all who dealt with him.

Political historians and theorists have an insatiable urge to define the prime ministership in terms of its powers — a project which is liable to end in frustration, for the powers are fluid and ill-defined. “The office of the prime minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it,” H.H. Asquith, holder of the office from 1908-16, observed in his memoirs. By far the greatest prime ministerial power is the power of patronage, which some, including Walpole, have been brilliant at distributing in order to entrench their control of the Commons.

Most backbenchers yearn for the more than a hundred ministerial posts, and the many other baubles, which are today in the prime minister’s gift. It is easy to feel contempt for their ambition, but without it, the House of Commons would be unmanageable, and Italian levels of instability might prevail. After failing to win the 2010 election outright, David Cameron fortified his position not just by doing a deal with Nick Clegg, but by holding out hope to his own backbenchers, young and old, male and female, Left and Right, bright and dim, that their time would come. This was a difficult hope to maintain, for everyone could see there were nothing like as many jobs to go around as there were backbenchers who longed for their talents to be recognised, especially once the Liberal Democrats had been rewarded for their support with a generous share of the cake. In the creation of privy councillors and life peers Cameron was profligate on an 18th-century scale, which eased the pressure a bit, though it also had the effect of devaluing that currency.
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