The Best Background for a PM?

Very many people will have thought Rishi Sunak had an excellent background for a future PM. He had studied PPE at Oxford and then for an MBA at Stanford in the USA before working in investment banking and helping to set up a successful ‘hedge fund’. He was bright, well-educated and had skills in banking & finance, what could go wrong?

Unfortunately, when you see him interviewed you get a real sense that he considers himself perfectly qualified for the job and detect a real sense of irritation that we might not agree. He has balanced the books, checked the spreadsheet and he gave us furlough during Covid. How can we be so ungrateful?

All 5 of our most recent Tory Prime Ministers, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss & Rishi Sunak were educated at Oxford. This is not surprising, of our 57 Prime Ministers to date, 43 studied at Oxford or Cambridge and only 3 went to other universities. The self-belief, the being at ease with (or enjoying) power and the certainty in one’s own ability that is required of PMs is certainly helped by such an educational background.

When I look back at that list of 5 Tory PMs, Theresa May stands out and not because she is a woman. She didn’t ooze confidence in the same way as the others – a desire to follow the rules and to serve the public seemed to be her priority, but she was unfortunate enough to become PM after a Brexit campaign where ‘following rules’ was derided as something that was holding Britain back. The whole zeitgeist of that decade could be summed up by the Brexiteer desire to take back control, to go it alone, to enjoy the excitement of following our own rules and making our own way in the word. Theresa May was a poor fit, but her exciting replacement Boris Johnson, who seemed perfect for the age, proved to be such a disaster that his own party had to remove him. It turned out that ignoring rules, focusing on making money and supporting your friends did not create a perfect government.

If, as seems likely we choose Keir Starmer as our next PM I suspect his background will make him a very different PM for a different age. As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, public service and creating a society where rules matter and are applied equally to all of us appear to be his goal. He is proud to the point of boring us with the working-class background of his parents. He will not offer the drama or excitement of a Boris, he will be hard working and will expect the same from his ministers.

Keir’s deputy, Angela Rayner has a background that is dramatically different from most senior government ministers. She left school aged 16 after becoming pregnant & without taking any qualifications until later in life, when she studied BSL and Social Care at Stockport College.

What do you think?

What sort of background and skills does our Prime Minister need? We probably want them to have integrity and a sense of direction that sets the tone and unifies the country.

Are the varied backgrounds of Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner the perfect antidote to the age of Brexit & populism?


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