Chequered history of ministries of all the talents

Throughout British history, Ministries of All the Talents have rarely lived up to their promise.

The Ghosts of 'all the Talents' taking their last voyage, James Gillray's caricature of the ministry's break-up. Lord Howick rows and St. Vincent steers
The Ghosts of 'all the Talents' taking their last voyage, James Gillray's caricature of the ministry's break-up. Lord Howick rows and St. Vincent steers. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Government of all the talents’ is a curious phrase that has surfaced again in British political commentaries over the last few days. Now that another fractious Tory leadership contest is over, the UK’s new Prime Minister is trying to bring warring tribes within the Conservative party together. Forming a government that embraces assorted factions is designed to signal to an exasperated public and the bond markets that stability is the order of the day. There is a long tradition in Britain of old foes becoming close colleagues in times of crisis, but it is a convention that has produced mixed results.

On a frosty January morning, in 1806, the then Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, lay on his deathbed. According to witnesses, his last words were reputed to have been ‘my country, my country, O how I leave my country’, before his weary eyes rolled back and his prolonged suffering finally ceased. Britain was indeed in a pitiful state. Its protracted war against Napoleonic France had reached a depressing nadir after Bonaparte’s victory over the Third Coalition at Austerlitz.

Having broken his greatest continental adversaries on the battlefield, no major nation stood in the way of Napoleon’s ambition for absolute mastery of Europe, that is, except for ‘perfidious Albion’, which under the energetic direction of Pitt had remained a persistent thorn in the emperor’s side. Before the coalition’s dramatic defeat at Austerlitz, Pitt had been hailed as ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’ by his followers, successfully keeping Britain on a war-footing and financing the military efforts of her allies.

But his policy put immense strain on the economy and provoked popular opposition in the House of Commons and across the country. With Pitt dead and the state of the war worsening by the day, Parliament and the Hanoverian King, George III, sought to unify the country behind a ‘Ministry of All the Talents’. It was to be a government composed of foes and the very best and ablest politicians available.

The irascible monarch suppressed his deep contempt for the libertine Whig leader, Charles James Fox, and asked him, and his acolytes, to serve alongside abstemious and stern Tory grandees such as Henry Addington and Nicholas Vansittart. Their mission statement was seemingly simple: obtain a peace treaty with France and by doing so, unite the nation.

Unfortunately, despite that administration’s impressive array of ministerial qualities and its unprecedented collegiate atmosphere, the ‘all-talented’ government completely failed to achieve peace and end growing political discord. But it did foster a healthy and enduring expectation in British politics: that to stave off catastrophe, cliques should quit their animosities and come together.

Emulating this example, multi-party coalitions were formed both in the First World War, and more famously, in the Second World War. Churchill’s war coalition was occasionally called a ministry of all talents by the press, but unlike its namesake this was an incredibly successful administration.

That wartime government is perhaps the finest example of British politicians dynamically getting on with the task at hand and not bearing preceding grudges, but politics in Westminster was never as comradely across different parties after 1945.

Intriguingly, there are instances when it is far easier to unite two parties, than to unite one. Between 2010 and 2015 a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, led by David Cameron, was relatively stable, though it required statecraft and constant negotiation between the senior figures in both parties.

More typically, the action takes place within one party as leaders battle to hold it together.

After the premature death of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963, Harold Wilson took over and became a conciliatory moderator par excellence, a skill he deployed continually after winning the premiership in 1964. He artfully reconciled Gaitskellites and Aneurin Bevan’s host of committed disciples and forged a crack team of capable ministers. Some historians have argued that Wilson’s ability to bridge the commodious divide between factions on the left was his greatest political accomplishment, enabling the Labour party to win three general elections under his leadership.

The stewardship of Wilson’s exceptional conclave of diverging denominations of democratic socialism was inherited by his successor, James Callaghan. Callaghan’s style of governance prioritised cabinet consensus above all else. Critics of his administration often deem that hallmark of his premiership a major weakness, one which slowed the pace of decision-making in Number 10 and invited open dissent and interminable bickering in cabinet, but in retirement Callaghan defended this method of running a state as the optimal means of reaching an effective resolution during a period of crisis.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet featured several ‘wets’ who opposed her radical economic policies. As she grew in strength, Thatcher brought in more ministers who shared her views, before new factions formed and contributed to her downfall in 1990.

Thatcher’s successor, John Major, found the challenge of uniting pro-European and Eurosceptic coteries in his cabinet near impossible, and those incurable rifts did much to diminish his authority and the Conservative party’s appeal in 1997.

The serious economic crisis facing Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unquestionably requires a team of ministers to work together. While acknowledging the scale of the challenges ahead, Sunak has repeatedly stated his intention to lead a unified political force drawn from the different strands of the Conservative tradition. But as Shakespeare put it: ‘Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find’. Sunak’s ministry of all the talents will need a lot of luck.


Harry Cluff