Or can he win an election in his own right?
Gordon Brown’s arrival at Number Ten without winning a General Election recalls the other Prime Ministers since World War Two who likewise didnâ€™t enter Downing Street via the ballot box. Their record is mixed, and Brown will be hoping that he doesnâ€™t join the list of â€œfag-endâ€ PMs who merely finished a term that someone else had won, and when their own turn came to face the voters, ended up losing.
Alec Douglas-Home served just one year as Prime Minister, taking over the reins from Macmillan who resigned on health grounds (wrongly as it turned out) in the aftermath of the Profumo Affair. The Conservatives were not given much chance against a revitalised Labour Party under Harold Wilson in the 1964 election, but in the event Labour scraped home with a majority of just four seats. Douglas-Home resigned as party leader in July 1965, but made a comeback five years later, serving as Foreign Secretary in the Heath Government (the last ex-PM to serve in someone elseâ€™s Cabinet).
James Callaghan became PM in April 1976 after Wilsonâ€™s surprise retirement. He had previously held all three great offices of state, but from the third day of his premiership onwards, Labour had a minority of seats, leading to the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-8. By the autumn of 1978 most polls were showing Labour ahead and despite Callaghan being expected to call an election, he chose not to. By March 1979, after the Winter of Discontent, the election was forced on the government as it lost a confidence vote in the Commons. Despite being personally more popular than Margaret Thatcher, Callaghanâ€™s Labour lost heavily in the 1979 election, by 7 points in the popular vote and with the Conservatives having a majority of 43.
Better precedents for Brown are Anthony Eden (who won at the polls a month after becoming PM), Harold Macmillan, who took over in 1957 and won a thumping victory in the 1959 election, and of course more recently John Major. Although Majorâ€™s majority in 1992 was just 21, the Conservatives won a record number of votes, and were 7.5% ahead in vote share. Even though the 1992-97 government was deeply unpopular for much of the time, nevertheless Major gave the Conservatives a new lease of power, and even in its dying days in the run up to the 1997 election, key policies such as rail privatisation were being enacted.
The jury is still very much out on whether Gordon will be a “fag-end” Prime Minister or not. His first few days in power have been something of a roller-coaster, looking quite good in his handling of the London/Glasgow bombs, but distinctly less good after his first PMQs. On the betting markets, Labour and the Conservatives are almost neck and neck for most seats, but it looks as though the chances of an autumn 2007 election may already be fading.
Paul Maggs “Double Carpet”
Mike Smithson returns on 16th July