Nigel Jones is a historian, biographer and journalist who has contributed to The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, released by Biteback today (RRP £15). The book is available for ConservativeHome readers for the special price of £12 plus free UK P&P. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to take advantage of this offer.
The Prime Minister, David Davis, answering Labour leader David Miliband, said that holding an In/Out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, far from being a reckless gamble at a time of economic crisis was essential to safeguarding our historic freedoms and democracy.
If you can easily imagine the above exchange taking place in today's House of Commons, you can well envisage how often history turns on the great might-have-beens or almost-wases. A new collection of counter-factual political essays, The Prime Ministers Who Never Were imagines fourteen such scenarios in 20th and 21st Century Britain, presenting the potted and partly fictionalised biographies of the wannabe Premiers whom only accidents, bad judgement or a few votes prevented from crossing the threshold of 10 Downing Street.
In making his selection, the book's editor, Francis Beckett, had one golden rule: that although the candidate in question never attained the supreme prize in British politics, there was a particular moment (or in Rab Butler's case, two particular moments) when he might easily have done so had the chips fallen differently (sadly, the potential PMs are all male).
There is, it must be admitted, a Labour bias to the book. Beckett is a declared Labour stalwart, and only four Tories and no Liberals make his final cut. The nine Labour virtual reality PMs he picks are: J.R. Clynes, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Gaitskell, George Brown, Michael Foot, Denis Healey (who writes the book's foreword) Neil Kinnock, John Smith and David Miliband. (There is also Oswald Mosley who was both Labour and Tory - and much else besides). But more of him later. So, to even things out a little, let me profile the outnumbered non-Labourites.
Of the quartet of Tories - Austen Chamberlain, Lord Halifax Rab Butler and Norman Tebbit - Chamberlain was by far the most ineffectual. Upright, decent, dull, a physical clone of his dynamic father Joe, down to the monocle in the eye and the orchid in the buttonhole, he entirely lacked old Joe's charisma and drive. In Churchill's damning, though accurate phrase: "Poor old Austen - always played the game and always lost it."