A historic maximum: ex-prime ministers and iar-taoisigh

There are more former British prime minsters alive today than at any time since the office was created in 1721.

Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Camero, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major make a total of seven living PMs since Truss’s resignation on 25 October last year. And from the looks of things, that number is likely to increase before it decreases – Rishi Sunak’s government looks to be in worse health than any of his predecessors.

On two previous occasions there have been six living ex-Prime Ministers.

Between the end of Sir Robert Peel’s first term, on 8 April 1835, and the death of Henry Addington on 15 February 1844, there were six living ex-prime ministers: Addington (whose time at the top was decades previously, 1801-1804), Viscount Goderich, the Duke of Wellington, Earl Grey (he of the tea), Lord Melbourne and Robert Peel. Though in fact Melbourne had a second term from 1835 to 1841, and Peel then came back until 1846, so there is an argument that there were only five living men who were former and not current prime minsters for that period.

Similarly, from the end of Ramsay MacDonald’s first term, on 4 November 1924, until the death of H.H. Asquith on 15 February 1928, there were also six living former prime ministers: the rather obscure Lord Rosebery (briefly PM in 1894-95), Arthur Balfour, Asquith, David Lloyd-George, Stanley Baldwin and MacDonald. Again, however, Baldwin was back in for a second term.

The most recent period when there was only one living ex-prime minister was between the death of Baldwin on 14 December 1947 and the end of Attlee’s term on 26 October 1951. The only living ex-PM then was the leader of the opposition, Winston Churchill.

When the first prime minister, Robert Walpole, died on 18 March 1745, there were no living ex-PMs. His successor, the Earl of Wilmington, died in office, as did the next in line, Henry Pelham, and there was no living ex-PM until the end of the first term of Pelham’s brother, the Duke of Newcastle, on 11 November 1756.

The number of ex-Taoisigh (?iar-taoisigh?) is also at an all-time high, at six (Bruton, Ahern, Cowen, Kenny, Varadkar, Martin) though again we have to enter the caveat that Varadkar is currently enjoying his second run.

That level has been hit twice before. Between the end of John Bruton’s term in 1997 and the death of Jack Lynch in 1999, Lynch, Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey, Garret Fitzgerald, Albert Reynolds and Bruton himself were all living, and as Bruton’s successor Bertie Ahern had not previously been Taoiseach, there are no ifs nor buts.

And more recently, for the two months in 2011 between the end of Brian Cowen’s term and the death of Garret Fitzgerald, the living ex-Taoisigh included also Liam Cosgrave, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern; and again Enda Kenny was a first-time Taoiseach during that period.

There has been no period when there were no living ex-Taoisigh, thanks in part to the longevity of Eamon de Valera. After the death of John A. Costello in 1976, Jack Lynch was the only living ex-Taoiseach until Liam Cosgrave lost the 1977 election (and Lynch came back to power).

The number of living former heads of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland is also current at an all-time high, at five (Mark Durkan, Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster, Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill – counting First Minister and Deputy First Minister equally, but not counting those who served only in an acting capacity such as Reg Empey and John O’Dowd).

In the olden days there was no living ex-Prime Minster of Northern Ireland until John Miller Andrews was kicked out in 1943, Lord Craigavon having died in office, and then again from Andrews’ death in 1956 until Brookeborough retired in 1963. James Chichester-Clark, briefly PM ion the dying days of Stormont, lived to 2002, by which time devolution had been more or less restored.

Aren’t you glad I worked that out for you?