With Theresa May on the cusp of delivering a crucial speech on the Brexit negotiations, political eyes are fixed on Boris Johnson to see if her plans meet his approval.
Ever since the Foreign Secretary published his own 4,000 word vision of how the negotiations could conclude, rumours around Westminster have grown that Johnson could be about to quit the Cabinet.
If Johnson does flounce out, he would be joining a long list of frontbench politicians who preferred to make a splash than stick it out.
Here are seven of the most dramatic, and it might be worth Johnson noting that none of them became Prime Minister.
1) Michael Heseltine
A shock of blonde hair, the darling of the Conservative membership, and former MP for Henley – the parallels between Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson are numerous. Like Johnson, Heseltine also became frustrated with the political direction of a female Conservative Prime Minister, and in 1986 used the cover of a row over helicopter manufacturing to quit as Defence Secretary. Like Johnson, Heseltine had a soft spot for theatrics, and in a Cabinet meeting in January 1986 told Thatcher “I can no longer be a member of this Cabinet” and stormed out of the room. There just happened to be a media pack in Downing Street, and Heseltine was able to deliver his resignation statement immediately.
What happened next? Heseltine challenged Thatcher for the premiership in 1990, and although he caused her to quit Number 10, John Major emerged as victorious in the leadership contest. He was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1995, but declined to stand in the 1997 leadership contest to replace John Major
2) Geoffrey Howe
Geoffrey Howe was Thatcher’s first Chancellor, and also the man the Iron Lady turned to take over as Foreign Secretary after her 1983 General Election landslide. By 1989, he was Leader of the Commons and Deputy Prime Minister, but found himself out of Thatcher’s inner circle of advisors. With growing unpopularity over the Poll Tax and the Thatcher adopting an increasingly hardline over the UK’s relationship with Europe, Howe resigned from the Cabinet in 1990. His actually resignation was on November 1, but it was the statement he delivered in the Commons on November 13 which really did it for Thatcher. Speaking from the backbenchers for the first time since 1970, Howe quietly delivered this damning statement on the UK’s negotiations with Europe over Economic and Monetary Union Plans:
“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.
What happened next? Howe’s resignation speech was the straw that broke the back of Thatcher’s premiership, and Heseltine launched his leadership bid within days. Howe stood down from Parliament in 1992, and was made a life peer that same year.
3) Iain Duncan Smith
The former Tory leader seemed to relish his job at the Department for Work and Pension, pressing on with controversial reforms to the welfare system amid much opposition from the political left. But after Chancellor George Osborne’s 2016 Budget, IDS unexpectedly quit the Cabinet. He claimed that cuts to the disability benefits were a “compromise too far” alongside other measures which “benefits higher earning taxpayers.” However, his resignation came after Downing Street had already announced a u-turn on the disability benefit cuts, prompting speculation the real reason for his leaving was in order to fully campaign for Britain’s exit from the EU in the upcoming referendum. IDS claimed that as collective ministerial responsibility over that issue had already been suspended, it played no part in his decision.
What happened next? IDS helped Vote Leave win the EU Referendum, but did not return to the Government frontbench once Theresa May became Prime Minister after the vote.
4) James Purnell
hLooking every inch a Blairite, and with the CV to back it (Oxford graduate; Downing Street Special Advisor; parachuted into a safe northern seat) James Purnell seemed to have crossed the floor and become a full-blown Brownite in the late noughties. Gordon Brown promoted him to the Cabinet as Culture, Media and Sport Secretary in 2007, and then handed him the Work and Pensions brief in 2008. But by June 2009, and with Labour’s popularity in the country sinking fast, Purnell decided he had had enough and dramatically quit the Cabinet – calling on Brown to go with him. In a resignation letter he sent to The Times and The Sun, Purnell told Brown his “continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely.”
He added: “I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning.”
What happened next? Gordon Brown didn’t go, but Purnell did – right out of the Commons. He stood down at the 2010 election and eventually ended up back at the BBC, where he had worked before entering politics. He is now Director of Radio and Education.
5) George Brown
Serving as Labour leader for month after the unexpected death of Hugh Gaitskill in 1963, George Brown was one of the towering figures of the party in the 1960s. He lost on the full-time job to Harold Wilson in the subsequent leadership contest, but served under his rival after Labour won the 1964 and 1966 elections. In 1966 he was appointed Foreign Secretary, but his heavy drinking led to series of gaffes – including being publicly rude to the wife of Britain’s Ambassador to France. When sterling took a hit in March 1968, Wilson was unable to find his Foreign Secretary to take part in an emergency meeting of the Privy Council. After learning the meeting had gone ahead without him, a tired and emotional (i.e. drunk) Brown launched into an angry tirade at Wilson, and stormed out. The next day he sent a letter to Wilson suggested the two should “part company” – a decision which Wilson reluctantly accepted.
What happened next? Brown lost his Belper seat in the 1970 election, but was made a member of the House of Lords later that year. By the mid-80s he had drifted so far from Labour that he joined the Social Democratic Party.
6) Aneurin Bevan
Aneurin Bevan made his reputation as Minister for Health in Clement Attlee’s transformative government of 1945-1950, but in 1951 he was shifted to the Ministry of Labour and National Service. Despite his new responsibilities, it was an argument over the welfare state which prompted his resignation from Cabinet. He was angry that Chancellor Hugh Gaitskill was planning to take money out of the National Insurance fund to pay for rearmament, and replenish the pot by charging for spectacles and dental care. In his resignation speech in the Commons, the fiery Welshman accused Attlee and Gaitskill of “polluting the stream” of democratic socialism with the measures. Future Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and junior minister John Freeman quit in solidarity with Bevan.
What happened next? Six months later Attlee called a general election which saw Labour win more votes than the Tories but less seats. The party was out of office for 13 years. Bevan stood for leadership in 1955, but lost to Gaitskill – the man who triggered is resignation.
7) Lord Randolph Churchill
More famous for being the father of Winston, Lord Randolph Churchill was one of the most colourful political figures of the latter end of the 19th century. He was as comfortable launching attacks on his Conservative colleagues as his Liberal opponents, but gained a reputation for being more style than substance. His five month stint as Chancellor from August to December 1886 only cemented this view. Despite preparing an entire Budget to be delivered in Spring 1989, Churchill quit over a row over military spending before he could deliver. His actual plan was only to threaten resignation, hoping Prime Minister Salisbury and his Cabinet colleagues would back down in order to keep him. Salisbury called his bluff and accepted his resignation. Churchill was shocked as he did not think anyone was suitable to replace him at the Treasury. He was reported to have remarked “I forgot about [George] Goschen” when his successor was announced.
What happened next? Churchill’s frontbench career was over, and he died nine years later aged just 45.