The foreign secretaries who became PM: can Boris do the same?

Boris Johnson Business Speech

First, Mayor of London, then Brexit leader, then Foreign Secretary – what next for Boris?

In recent decades, it has been the chancellor who has tended to go on to succeed an outgoing prime minister. John Major took over from Nigel Lawson as chancellor in 1989 before going on to lead the Conservative Party and become prime minister. Then, after ten years as chancellor, Gordon Brown stepped into Tony Blair’s shoes as Labour leader and prime minister. George Osborne was considered a potential successor to Cameron, and had the referendum gone the other way, Osborne could well have been prime minister today.

But what about past Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth affairs? How many of them have made it to the top, and could Boris Johnson be one of them?

Boris Johnson

Under the last Labour government, none of the four foreign secretaries went on to become prime minister - not one of Robin Cook, Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett went on to lead. David Miliband, who served under Gordon Brown, fought for the Labour leadership in 2010, but ultimately lost out to his brother, Ed.

John Major

In fact, the last foreign secretary to become party leader – and prime minister – was John Major, who held the position for just under three months in 1989 before going on to become chancellor, and then prime minister in 1990.

James Callaghan

Callaghan served as foreign secretary under Harold Wilson before succeeding him in 1976 following Wilson’s surprise announcement that his time at the top was over.

House of Commons Chamber: Speaker's table

Sir Alec-Douglas-Home

Douglas-Home succeeded Harold MacMillan in 1963 as prime minister before going on to lose the election to Harold Wilson’s Labour one year later. Under Macmillan, he served as foreign secretary from 1960-1963 from the House of Lords. Seven years later, after his brief premiership, he then served as foreign and commonwealth secretary under Edward Heath. It’s hard to imagine a modern-day prime minister going on to serve on the front-benches after their time at the top.

Harold Macmillan

Macmillan served as prime minister from 1957 – 1963. He briefly served as foreign secretary in 1955 before becoming chancellor and then prime minister.

Anthony Eden

Eden served as foreign secretary on three separate occasions (1935 – 1938, 1940 – 1945, and 1951 – 1955). He succeeded Winston Churchill as Conservative leader and prime minister in 1955. Two years later he resigned, paving the way for Harold Macmillan to lead the country. Ironically, despite his abundant foreign affairs experience, it was the foreign affair of the Suez Crisis that did it for him in the end.

PM Boris Johnson?

There is certainly a history of foreign secretaries going on to become prime ministers, but if there is one thing Boris Johnson should note from this history, it’s that many of these foreign secretaries jumped to chancellor before becoming prime minister.

When the leadership election comes, if history tells us anything here, it’s that Boris should be on the look-out for Philip Hammond, who served as foreign secretary under David Cameron, and then chancellor under May.