Steve Richards’s new book is an engaging survey of modern prime ministers. These leaders – from Harold Wilson to Theresa May, whose defenestration is alluded to in skilful late additions – qualify as modern in two regards. First, they are figures of the television age (the more recent ones are also victims of the social media era). Second, they are all individuals whom Richards ‘knew directly or observed closely’. As a distinguished and influential political journalist and commentator, he has written about, interviewed and spent time with most of them.
At a time when prime ministers seem to be coming along far more frequently than before (four since 2009, compared to only one, Tony Blair, in the decade before), this is a useful work. But as the subtitle indicates, The Prime Ministers is a book with higher ambitions than mere reportage. Throughout, Richards pulls out what he takes as the lessons for leadership from the actions and instincts, triumphs and disasters of the individuals whose careers he recounts.
The book opens with a chapter on Harold Wilson that sets the tone for the rest of the book. This is a relaxed account – there are few footnotes to distract from the narrative and Richards is generous in his observations. His opening remark is typical of the whole: ‘Harold