Theresa May has been rated as one of the worst two post-war prime ministers in a survey of UK university academics specialising in British politics and contemporary British history. She comes bottom in the prime-ministerial “league table” alongside Anthony Eden, whose short premiership was destroyed by the Suez crisis of 1956.
Even Alec Douglas-Home, prime minister for only a year before he was evicted from office in the 1964 general election, was given a higher rating.
These results come from the fourth in a series of surveys carried out by the University of Leeds in conjunction with the research company Woodnewton and prior to that MORI. Similar polls, producing prime ministerial rankings, were conducted in 2004, 2010 and 2016.
The survey was completed by 93 academics working across 44 universities in the UK, between June 1 and June 16 2021. Respondents were asked to rate the performance of each prime minister during their tenure on a scale of zero to ten, with ten representing the top score of “highly successful” and zero representing “highly unsuccessful”.
As in previous surveys, Labour’s Clement Attlee was rated as the most successful post-war prime minister, with Margaret Thatcher in second place, just ahead of Tony Blair. Also replicating the previous run of survey results, Anthony Eden and Alec Douglas-Home featured in the bottom rungs of the prime-ministerial league table – now joined by May with her dismal 2.3 rating. More than a third of academics (37%) rated her performance as either zero or one out of ten and only one was prepared to rate her premiership higher than six.
The results confirm the notion that “takeover” prime ministers – who first enter Number 10 following the resignation of their predecessor rather than by winning a general election victory – spend, on average, less time in office. They also tend to have less successful administrations and are generally rated as worse-performing.
Of the group of 14 prime ministers up to and including Theresa May, eight were “takeover” leaders" while six won general elections to become prime minister. The average rating for the first group was 4.37 compared to 5.25 for the second group.
The top four ranked prime ministers, between them, won 12 of the 20 general elections held between 1945 and 2017 and clocked up 35 years in Number 10, while the bottom three in the league table managed only two election victories between them and a total of only six years in office.
In many ways, assessments of prime ministerial performance are relatively stable. If you exclude Winston Churchill’s wartime administration, Attlee and Thatcher are always rated first and second in the league table. Blair, meanwhile, seems to have cemented third position. But reputations can go up as well as down. The failures and successes of later prime ministers – and the passage of time and the later development of events – can change perspectives and evaluations.
Asked to give their assessment of how well Boris Johnson is doing so far, respondents gave him a relatively low score of 3.5. Of course this can only be seen as a provisional rating given he had been in office just less than two years at that point.
May also fared badly when respondents were asked to rate the impact of each prime minister from Thatcher onwards. They were judged on their impact on British society, the economy, foreign policy, democracy and the constitution, and their own party. Each leader was given a net score across these issues – the percentage of academics rating them positively minus those who rated them negatively.
Cameron and May are the only two of these prime ministers to be rated negatively across all five areas. May scored particularly badly in terms of her perceived impact on Britain’s foreign policy and role in the world. She was also judged harshly on her effect on her own party and on British democracy and the constitution. Under all three of those headings she had the worst net scores of any of any prime minister in the past four decades.
Surveys like this one can reveal as much about the academics as about the prime ministers. Our sample was heavily Labour supporting – 60% of those academics expressing a party preference said they would vote Labour in a general election, compared with 13% who would vote Conservative, 13% who would vote Liberal Democrat and 11% would vote Green.
This was also a cohort that was heavily Remain in the 2016 European Referendum: 86% said they voted Remain compared to only 14% voting Leave (among those answering). And they are still in favour EU membership, albeit not quite as much as before. Now 60% would vote to rejoin the EU, 20% vote to stay out, while 20% are unsure.
The extent to which these factors, and particularly views on Brexit, influenced the ratings for Cameron, May and Johnson is open to debate. Though this group of academics also rated Thatcher as one of the post-war greats.
Nevertheless, both Cameron and Johnson receive higher ratings among those academics who say they would vote to stay out of the EU if another referendum was held “tomorrow” – and, in the case of Johnson, the difference is stark. Among this relatively small cohort of academics, his average rating is 6.2, which would place him among the top five post-war prime ministers.
It’s worth noting that the general public has also put May at the bottom of the prime-ministerial league table. In an Ipsos MORI poll of 1,124 adults in March 2021, asking whether prime ministers since 1945 had done a “good job” or a “bad job”, Cameron and May occupied the bottom two slots in the league table with net scores (“good” minus “bad” ratings) of -17 and -23 respectively, with Churchill (+55), Attlee (+16) and Wilson (+16) rated by the public as the top three prime ministers.
Future academic historians and political scientists may come to a different verdict. But whether she is seen as not up to the job or as someone who was dealt an impossible hand and overwhelmed by events (or a combination of the two), opinion on Theresa May’s premiership is, for now, damning.