University of Botswana History Department

Elections and governments in 20th & 21st century Britain

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Table of elections and prime ministers

Election & result Prime Minister Other events; comments

1895 Lord Salisbury (Conservative) 25 June Last prime minister in House of Lords (see notes)
1900 (28 Sept - 24 Oct) Conservative

1901 Edward VII (22 Jan)

1902 Arthur Balfour (Conservative) 12 July

1905 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Liberal) 5 Dec Balfour resigns and Campbell-Bannerman becomes PM before election (see notes)
1906 (12 Jan - 7 Feb) Liberal

1908 Herbert Henry Asquith (Liberal) 7 April
1910 (14 Jan - 9 Feb): split Con - Lib, Irish Nationalists hold balance

1910 George V (6 May)
1910 (2 - 19 Dec): similar result

1911 Parliament Act (House of Lords loses power of veto; term reduced from 7 to 5 years)

1914 1st WW begins

1915 Herbert Henry Asquith (Coalition) 25 May Limited coalition

1916 David Lloyd George (Coalition) 7 Dec Much greater Conservative participation; Liberals become divided

1918 Armistice (end 1st WW); 1918 universal male suffrage and votes for some women
1918 (14 Dec) Coalition
Coalition is continued into peacetime

1922 Irish Free State separates from UK

1922 Andrew Bonar Law (Conservative) 23 Oct Conservatives withdraw from Coalition, return to party govt.
1922 (15 Nov) Conservative

1923 Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) 22 May
1923 (6 Dec) split Cons - Lab - Lib

1924 J. Ramsay MacDonald (Labour) 22 Jan First Labour government. Con. held more seats than Lab. but Liberals give support to Lab.

1924 (29 Oct) Conservative 1924 Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) 4 Nov

1928 universal suffrage (equal votes for women)
1929 (30 May) Labour (minority)

1929 J. Ramsay MacDonald (Labour) 5 June

1931 J. Ramsay MacDonald (National Government) 24 Aug To deal with economic crisis, National Coalition of Cons, some Lab, and some Lib formed: other Lab & Lib oppose
1931 (27 Oct) National

1935 Stanley Baldwin (National) 7 June
1935 (14 Nov) National

1936 Edward VIII (20 Jan);
Abdication crisis
1936 George VI (12 Dec)

1937 Neville Chamberlain (National) 28 May

1939 2nd WW begins

1940 Winston Churchill (Coalition) 10 May All-party war coalition

1945 Caretaker / Conservative (see notes) (Churchill) 23 May 1945 end of 2nd WW in Europe; Labour withdraws from coalition and demands election

1945 (5 July) (results 26 July, see notes) Labour 1945 Clement Attlee (Labour) 26 July
1945 end of 2nd WW in Pacific

1947 Indian independence
1950 (23 Feb) Labour

1951 (25 Oct) Conservative 1951 Sir Winston Churchill (Conservative) 26 Oct

1952 Elizabeth II (6 Feb)

1955 Sir Anthony Eden (Conservative) 6 April
1955 (26 May) Conservative

1956 Suez crisis

1957 Harold Macmillan (Conservative) 10 Jan
1959 (8 Oct) Conservative

1963 Lord Home (Conservative) (19 Oct) [23 Oct = Sir Alec Douglas-Home (see notes)]

1964 (15 Oct) Labour 1964 Harold Wilson (Labour) 16 Oct
1966 (31 March) Labour

1970 (18 June) Conservative 1970 Edward Heath (Conservative) 19 June

1972 Northern Ireland: direct rule

1973 Britain enters EEC

1974 (28 Feb) Labour (minority) 1974 Harold Wilson (Labour) 4 March
1974 (10 Oct) Labour

1976 James Callaghan (Labour) 5 April Due to by-elections, a minority govt.

1979 (3 May) Conservative 1979 Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) 4 May

1982 Falklands War
1983 (9 June) Conservative

1987 (11 June) Conservative

1990 John Major (Conservative) 28 Nov
1992 (9 April) Conservative

1997 (1 May) Labour 1997 Tony Blair (Labour) 2 May

1998 "Good Friday Agreement": Northern Ireland Assembly established
1999 Scottish and Welsh devolved govt
1999 House of Lords Act (hereditary peers excluded)

[21st century]
2001 (7 June) Labour

2001 Sept. 11th attacks in New York and Washington
2003 start of Iraq war
2005 (5 May) Labour
2006 Government of Wales Act (further devolution)

2007 Gordon Brown (Labour) 27 June

2010 (6 May) no overall majority, Cons. largest party

2010 David Cameron (Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition) 11 May
2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act

2015 (7 May) Conservative majority 2015 David Cameron (Conservative) 8 May
2016 Brexit referendum (23 June)
2016 Theresa May (Conservative) 13 July
2017 (8 June) no overall majority, Cons. largest party Government reliant on support of Democratic Unionist Party
2019 Boris Johnson (Conservative) 24 July
2019 (12 Dec) Conservative majority

2020 Britain leaves the European Union
2022 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act repealed
2022 Liz Truss (Conservative) 6 September
2022 Charles III (8 Sept)
2022 Rishi Sunak (Conservative) 25 October


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Some notes

  1. The time line is not drawn proportionately - that is, years are not represented by centimetres. The table just marks changes. For a graph showing time proportionately, see below.
  2. Horizontal lines mark the division between what are considered different governments in terms of party.
  3. Prime Ministers are given in the second column followed by their party and date of appointment. Where a prime minister forms what is regarded as a new government but continues in office, e.g. where MacDonald formed the National Government, the description of the new government is given first.
  4. In the "Elections" column, the party which won a majority in the parliament is indicated. "Labour (minority)" indicates that Labour was clearly the winner but did not have an overall majority. Where the outcome was less clear this is noted in more detail.
  5. Governments are colour-coded as follows: blue = Conservative, yellow = Liberal, red = Labour, grey = coalition.
  6. The second election of 1974 produced a very narrow Labour majority; however the government lost a series of by-elections, leading to the loss of its majority.
  7. The date of accession of monarchs is noted in the third column.
  8. Note that the appointment of the Prime Minister does not necessarily coincide with an election. Firstly, if the Prime Minister retires, another is appointed who has the House's support: the public elects the House, not the Prime Minister, who is not a President and has no personal mandate from the voters. Secondly, there can be complications even when it is a matter of an election. In 1905 Balfour (Cons.) resigned as PM and Campbell-Bannerman (Lib.) was appointed before the election: Balfour hoped that having to take office would expose divisions in the Liberal Party. In 20th century practice, however, when a parliamentary election produced a clear change of government the prime minister normally resigned (and the leader of the winning party was appointed PM) the day following the election.
  9. After victory in Europe in 1945, the Labour Party withdrew from the coalition and an election was therefore held. (Elections had been postponed by agreement during the war.) At this point the war against Japan was still unfinished and it was unclear how long it would last. Churchill formed a "caretaker" government which held power between the end of the war coalition and the 1945 election. The government was officially described as "National", meaning a return to the Conservative-dominated coalition of the 1930s. Churchill made a point of including some non-Conservative ministers. However, historical sources have generally classified it as Caretaker/ Conservative. [Return]
  10. The 1945 election was held on 6 July, but before counting began, the ballot boxes from the forces overseas were returned to Britain, and the result was therefore on 26 July. [Return]
  11. Lord Salisbury is normally regarded as the last Prime Minister in the House of Lords. The 14th Earl of Home technically held office as prime minister for a few days 19 - 23 Oct 1963 as a member of the Lords before renouncing his peerage and entering the House of Commons at a by-election as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. [Return]
  12. Devolution: September 1997: referenda in Scotland and Wales vote for devolution; 1998: legislation passed (Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 1998); 1999: devolved governments elected.
  13. The table actually includes the end of the 19th century.

Sources for dates: Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 (London: Penguin, 1996); Alan Sked & Chris Cook, Post-War Britain: A Political History (London: Penguin, 1990); Encyclopaedia Britannica (Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM, 1994-2000); Northern Ireland Assembly website; Welsh Assembly website.

The term of parliament

In the British parliamentary system the spacing of elections is not fixed. Parliament has a maximum term, which since 1911 has been five years (before that it was seven years). However, elections are frequently called at times short of this, when the government considers it appropriate. Unlike in some other parliamentary states (such as New Zealand), it is regarded as legitimate in Britain to call early elections simply for the government's own political advantage, as happened for example in 2017. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, passed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, provided that elections would in general be fixed at every fifth year. The cynical view of the Act's motivation is that it was designed to stabilize the coalition by preventing either party provoking a new election at a time suitable to itself. In practice, the Act proved relatively easy to circumvent. In 2017 Theresa May successfully called an election using the Act's provision that the Commons could vote for an early election by a two-thirds majority, and in 2019 parliament simply passed a special one-off Act providing that an election was to be held on a specified day. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act was repealed in 2022.

The average term of parliament since 1900 is a little less than four years. The average is distorted by the parliaments of 1900–1918 and 1935–45, which were extended by an agreement during the two World Wars to defer elections. Excluding these gives an average of abut three years six months. However, the median is about four years. There have been three parliaments lasting less than a year: 1910, 1923–24, and 1974. The shortest was in 1974, when there were elections both in February and October. At the other extreme, since the five-year limit there have been four parliaments which have gone to the full five years: 1959–64, 1992–97, 2005–10, and 2010–15. Despite the failure of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, five year terms seem to be shifting, without much public notice, from an outside limit to an expected length.

Calculating the length of term of prime ministers is a bit more complicated. A prime minister, unlike an American president, does not have a "term" coinciding with elections, and a term in office is normally reckoned from appointment to resignation. Thus Harold Wilson was prime minister twice, but won four elections (1964, 1966, 1974, 1974 — he lost the 1970 election). However, cases where a prime minister forms a new and different government, as with MacDonald in 1931, may be considered the start of a new term, as this typically involves a new invitation by the Queen, and this has been used for the table above, for clarity. On this basis, the average length of a premiership from 1902 to 2022 has been about 3 years 9 months. This counts, for example, David Cameron's two governments separately. The median is lower, at 3 years 1 month. In terms of the total time in office for each prime minister, the average is 5 years 2 months.

The longest serving prime minister in this period was Margaret Thatcher, at 11 years 6 months, in a single term. The shortest serving was Andrew Bonar Law, at 7 months, until in 2022 Liz Truss set a new record of 49 days (50 days if you count both the day of appointment and the day of leaving office) This made her, in fact, the short-serving British prime minister in the three-hundred-year history of the office.* She was the last of Queen Elizabeth II's fifteen (British) prime ministers, appointed only two days before the Queen's death.

Since the start of the twentieth century, four prime ministers have held office at non-sequential times: Stanley Baldwin (1923–4, 1924–9, 1935–7) Ramsay MacDonald (1924, 1929–35), Winston Churchill (1940–45, 1951–55), and Harold Wilson (1964–70, 1974–6).

* The office of prime minister was not clearly defined in its earlier period, and there are a few cases where someone may be considered to have held the office for a very short period. However Liz Truss certainly holds the record for indisputably holding the office.

Graph of the various governments in the 20th century (1901-2000), by parties, spaced proportionately (approximately):




Note the more complicated party history of the first half of the century, as compared to the two-party dominance of the second half.

Graph of the governments since the Second World War, up till 2022:




Copyright © 2003 B. S. Bennett
Last updated 25 May 2023

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