Cameron, May, Johnson – who, in constitutional terms, is the worst prime minister?

15th April 2021

Future students of history and politics will no doubt have to answer essay questions about who was the worst prime minister out of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

And there is also no doubt there will be those who will aver that, say, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair was worse than any of those three.

Over on Twitter the comedian and writer David Schnieder offered his view:



From a constitutionalist (and liberal) perspective, there is a case to be made against each of the three.


Johnson, for example, switched the government’s policy on Northern Ireland and Brexit, negotiated and signed the Northern Irish protocol, and rapidly passed it into legislation without any scrutiny – and we are currently watching the fallout from this.

One can also put against Johnson that it was his switch from supporting Cameron and his political ambition that led May to adopting the hardline positions that she did on Brexit.


It was May, however, who was responsible for the ‘red lines’ that meant that the United Kingdom would leave the single market and customs union, which in turn necessitated there having to be elaborate provisions in respect of Northern Ireland.

She is also the one that triggered Article 50 prematurely and without a plan, and she even sought to make this momentous notification without an act of parliament.



Cameron is the most culpable.

However bad May and Johnson have been, they were and are merely dealing (badly) with a situation created by Cameron.

Cameron staked the entire future of the United Kingdom on a single turn of pitch-and-toss – a simple yes/no referendum – assuming that, of course, he would win.

No considerations – let alone plans – were made for the contingency of the votes being for leave.

It was perhaps the most irresponsible domestic political act one can imagine in peacetime.

A ‘macro’ decision that, in turn, led to the bad ‘micro’ decisions of May and Johnson as they sought to give effect to the referendum result.


And so Schneider may be wrong on this, at least in terms of what the United Kingdom is going through constitutionally.

Looking at it in terms of other policies, one perhaps could take a different view.

But I suspect future generations will be aghast and bewildered at Cameron’s folly.


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47 thoughts on “Cameron, May, Johnson – who, in constitutional terms, is the worst prime minister?”

  1. It was perhaps the most irresponsible domestic political act one can imagine in peacetime.

    What galls most of all is the reason for it – to protect the Tory party, at whatever cost of the country.

    To borrow from the Leaver lexicon – wasn’t that downright traitorous?

    1. And May had the same priorities – party first, well before country. She couldn’t put the Tory party back together – no-one could – and the political paralysis ensuing created the vacancy a Johnson could fill.

      It’s appallingly easy to destroy a country. I can’t see how it’ll be possible to regain anything of what we’ve lost.

      1. It’s easy enough: we just need to prosecute the three of them for misconduct in public office.
        Once the decision to leave is deemed criminal, we can argue that it did not meet our constitutional requirements and therefore the whole thing is void.

        The EU might not like that, but they should be ameliorated by seeing the perpetrators in gaol and I can’t see what argument they could put forward to challenge it:
        Fact is that they should have checked on the notification that box 50(1) was ticked.

  2. I’d vote for Johnson (as the worst PM, I hasten to add!) since his mendacity brought about Brexit and his personal opportunism “threw NI under the bus” (yes, that big red one with the lies painted on it) and created a de facto border within the UK. Not only has he needlessly threatened the integrity of the nation of which (God help us) he is PM, but he is also risking British lives in NI should the “protests” spiral out of control which they so easily could.

    Cameron was a chancer, May simply inept and out of her depth, but Johnson’s self-serving at the expense of the nation, its people and economic prospects makes him the clear winner in this contest of infammy.

    1. I’d agree – Cameron was an arrogant, out of touch fool, but there’s something deeply discomfiting and – the only word I’ve got is sinister – about Johnson and his sidekicks like (not an exhaustive list) Patel and Mogg.

  3. This is 100% true.
    I remember turning on the radio the morning after the referendum and the first thing I heard was a sentence ending with the words “disaster of Suez proportions”.

    If anything, the past five years have shown that that verdict was on the lenient side.

  4. That is a very fair analysis (and I share Keith Reeder’s diagnosis of “treason”) but my perception is coloured by other considerations.

    May’s “red lines” and so on were appalling, but my memory of her as Home Secretary and PM is even more tainted by the vulgarity of the creation of a “hostile environment”, her visceral hostility to foreigners, and the pathetic inability ever to be at all appealing.

    Johnson’s opportunism in going for Brexit, and carelessness over the Northern Ireland issue are as terrible as May’s hostile environment – but can we please have a PM who is not a habitual liar? And one who can string a few words into a coherent sentence, and maybe also not look like a scruffy slob?

    I agree Cameron is the worst for exactly DAG’s reason, but the other two are only a very very short nose behind.

  5. By 2011 a third of MPs on the Conservative benches wanted a fundamental renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Europe, and another third Britain to leave the EU altogether.

    Had Cameron not held a referendum he would have been replaced by a Conservative leader who would hold a referendum. Conservatives who had waited 13 years for a Conservative majority weren’t going to want to haemorrhage their votes to UKIP.

  6. David Cameron did not call a referendum because the “country was crying out for one”. He called it because of the perceived threat of UKIP on Conservative party membership; he called a nationwide referendum as a tool of party political management.

    He also misjudged the 2015 election; he expected to be in coalition with the LibDems again, and thus expected in that case that they would block a referendum. He was apparently unaware of the “black widow” [spider] internet campaign that his party ran against them in the south-west.

  7. If the referendum had gone the other way, would we still be taking about Cameron being one of the worst prime ministers? Despite whatever view is taken on the wisdom of holding a referendum without preparing for either eventuality, I suspect not. May and Johnson, although dealt a bad starting hand, have played them woefully.

    1. would we still be taking about Cameron being one of the worst prime ministers?

      So yes.

  8. “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.”

    It take a bit of time to put things in perspective. Thatcher and Blair did much, both good and ill. Major was brought down by dissention in his party over Europe and by sleaze (plus ça change). For all his faults, Brown was not so bad. He should have gone for the early election, and it was downhill from there.

    On Brexit, May was dealt a bad hand, and played it badly. Cameron was absolutely culpable for the folly of Brexit, and much flows from that. But Johnson is perhaps the worst prime minister this country has ever had, up there with Lord North or anyone else you care to mention.

    North was a good speaker, but lazy and incompetent. “Chronic indecision at critical moments was North’s great defect as a minister.”

  9. ‘Cameron staked the entire future of the United Kingdom on a single turn of pitch-and-toss – a simple yes/no referendum – assuming that, of course, he would win.’

    This is of course a valid argument – but, just out of curiosity, how (in your opinion), could Cameron have approached the deliverance of the referendum more responsibly?

      1. I agree that a better question was needed – although the decision to pull out of both the single market and the customs union was disastrous, it was hard to have a meaningful debate about what ‘Brexit’ actually meant in a Yes/No referendum – but what question exactly?

        1. That is a difficult question! But it would have helped for the populace to have had far more information beforehand, perhaps by way of leaflets to each household and in the media. The question could have been multiple-choice so as to untangle the multiple parts of the EU. For example:

          How should the UK’s relationship with the EU proceed?
          • Remain and have further integration within the EU
          • Remain on the same basis as now
          • Remain but renegotiate a new deal with the EU
          • Leave and join the European Economic Area (see definition below)
          • Leave and don’t join the European Economic Area
          • etc

  10. I’m more of David S’s view than DAG’s view on this.

    DAG is absolutely right in that Cameron is entirely responsible for where are now. But, in some ways, there was a logic to his actions.

    He offered the referendum to neutralise UKIP and the ERG.

    He was utterly convinced that he would win.

    As a result of his convictions, he declined to put in place anything that might protect his position (e.g. advisory and then confirmatory referendum; allowing British citizens living the rest of EU to vote; requiring all “leave” result in all four home nations, etc).

    No doubt he worried that this would undermine the outcome from UKIP’s point of view.

    And, as he was going to win anyhow, it didn’t matter.

    It all then went wrong as his underlying assumption “I will win” turned out to be incorrect.

    In contrast, May knowingly set red lines that made a sensible departure impossible.

    And, quite frankly, anything Johnson touches turns to brown gooey mush. The only reason he hasn’t achieved a Cameron-equivalent failure (yet) is that Cameron has made it pretty hard for anyone else to reach such dizzy heights. To match it, Johnson would have to decide to leave the UN (including WHO) and NATO at the same time.

    Cameron was undone by a false assumption. May was just incompetent. Johnson, well, he is a whole different ballgame entirely and it is impossible to see him not failing at everything.

    (and I note that DAG highlights this point himself in his penultimate paragraph)

    1. Quite. Cameron and Britain were undone by a change that no one could have predicted. Lab, reliably and strongly pro-EU elected Corbyn who proceeded to undermine the Remain campaign because he was in fact Leave. Cameron made it worse by deciding on a rushed referendum instead of the 2 yer affair of Scexit which gave Cummings the ability to run a short campaign on simple but oft repeated lies.

    2. DAG is absolutely right in that Cameron is entirely responsible for where are now. But, in some ways, there was a logic to his actions.
      He offered the referendum to neutralise UKIP and the ERG.
      He was utterly convinced that he would win.

      In so doing he gambled away the country’s prosperity and scuppered the future of its youth. The only logic to that was as it applied to Cameron himself, to serve his own narrow interests.

  11. I think you are too kind to Johnson. Undoubtedly Cameron is the main culprit, but Johnson has made the situation almost as bad as it can be, by not negotiating in good faith, constantly threatening to walk out of talks, leaving the deal until the last minute and then putting a border in the Irish Sea, after swearing blind that he wouldn’t.

  12. Cameron said he wanted to be PM because he thought he’d be rather good it it. It’s not so much that he wasn’t (he wasn’t) but that he thought this a reason for seeking the office.

    Remember him traipsing around ‘renegotiating’ the terms of our membership of the EU? The only outcome I remember off the top of my head is a limit on the amount of money Poles could send to their children back home.

    Cameron is a dolt, and he has done more damage to our country than the other two. But if the question is about pure nastiness, then I think the prize must go to ‘letterbox’ Johnson, with ‘hostile environment’ May a dishonourable mention.

  13. Couldn’t agree more with DAG. I’ve held this view for a long time, that Cameron’s stunning arrogance, completely capped by his mind-boggling stupidity, will make him deserved winner of ‘Worst Ever,’ probably in perpetuity.

  14. Spot on. Hard to think of a worse PM. Chamberlain is the usual candidate, but at least he was trying to prevent a war.

  15. The conclusion is political but the question was constitutional.
    May and Boris tried to overrule parliamentary sovereignty and were prevented by the SC and the wonderful Miller. Cameron did not and was not. Worth noting also that May abused the concept of cabinet, already diminished by decades of presidential prime ministers, to an all time low.
    DAG is – understandably – angry at Cameron’s inept handling of the referendum but that is not the same thing. He also ignores the context. First UKIP – and Brexit – was on an inexorable rise. One can view that as part of the general discontent of the “outs” with the “ins” or elite that did quite well post-Crash or for the partisan as something uniquely little England.
    Either way, Cameron faced a real risk of major electoral defeat if UKIP was not checked. Calling its bluff made a lot of sense: this had worked with Quebec, and Lab and LibDem were solidly pro-EU as was at least half his party. The same logic worked with Scexit.
    The problem was that no one could have anticipated Lab electing a leader who essentially campaigned for Brexit. So Cameron took the decision at a time when Lab was firmly in his camp, the result seemed a given and when his own survival was not that certain either.
    What is unforgivable is that Cameron had seen what worked in Scexit: a long process in which SNP was forced to make its case in detail, strong support from 16-18 year olds (contrary to SNP expectations), and the fear provoked by the markets. Why then did he abandon this approach for a quick vote that played into the simplistic, deceptive but effective tactics of Cummings.
    After that, preparation for a NO was beside the point. It was going to be disaster one way or another. And of course May was the worst possible person to run the process. After that mess it was relatively simple for Boris to simply spin his way to a result, all the more so since Lab and LibDem were so naive about the consequences to them politically.
    So looking back May must rival Eden as the worst PM in 100 years if not 300, Boris as one of the most unprincipled and Cameron as the most inexplicable (he pulled of huge political victories and yet created his own nemesis).

  16. Agree with DAG here on Cameron. There are many other charges to be laid at his door. I’d just highlight one key one:

    His withdrawal of the Conservatives from the EPP cut vital communications with his EU counterparts which led to the botched ‘renegotiation’ and have probably made life much more difficult post Brexit. Another disastrous decision made yet again for political expediency.

    I do think that we also need to add the culture of the 21st century Conservative party to the charge list. After all, it has elected three dreadful leaders in succession and frankly, I can’t see the next being any better.

  17. Perhaps you should draw up a matrix listing the “essential qualities needed to be prime minister” against these three candidates.

    Qualities and abilities could include: the ability to manage the party; the ability to quote Latin; truthfulness; intellectual rigour uninfected by public school or Oxford; empathy; an understanding of the world as it is; good at media presentations; capacity for hard work; actual experience of work and in government…

    Perhaps your readers could suggest some more.

  18. One has to be careful with the criticism of Cameron that “No consideration – let alone plans – were made for the contingency of the votes being for leave.”.

    Cameron could not have planned for Leave because he did not believe in it.

    Brexit is not a technical project (though it has technical consequences). It’s not “shall we cross the river by a bridge or a tunnel” where you can prepare both options even though you believe firmly that a bridge is best.

    So Cameron’s failure was not to create a plan for Leave.

    Rather, the failure was not to design a process that obliged Leavers to create a credible, testable plan for Leave either before a single referendum or between a first and second referendum.

    Having said that about a better process to have been followed, l am not sure it would have made much difference.

    It was obvious in 2016 that Leave had no coherent plan, but that did not seem to matter to many Leave voters.

    Nor post 2016 did every Leaver understand that what they wanted and what they were going to get were not necessarily the same thing.

    In the end, in spite of its real world effects, Brexit is an expression of a feeling, or a world view, not a practical plan for anything.

    Brexit means Brexit.

    So, orderly decision-making processes would not have helped reach a better outcome (by which l obvs mean Remain…).

    What would have helped is 40 years of pro-EU messaging as is the norm in most EU countries (along with the blaming of the Commission for unpopular laws &c which goes on there just as in the UK).

    For example, the Remain campaign never really put forward Freedom of Movement as something that benefited Britons.

    Also it would have helped if the country had got over its World War II fixation and addressed its history (Empire, slavery) a little more critically.

    Lessons for the Scottish independence referendum?

    It should not be prevented if the Scots wish one because that would turn the UK into a prison.

    The views of the non-Scots will not count for much.

    It will be about feelings more than trade flows and fiscal balances.

    For the Scottish unionists to win will require them to show how Scottish and British identities complement each other.

    The problem for the pro-Union Scottish Liberal Democrats is that their pro-EU stance makes it hard to argue against the SNP proposal of independence in the EU.

    The problem for the pro-Union Scottish Conservatives is that they have just claimed that British and European identities are incompatible, that one can only have one identity.

    Keir Starmer’s alternative of a constitutional convention is too managerial. And Labour will always be suspected of instrumentalising Scotland’s continued membership of the UK solely in order to gain power in Westminster.

    1. “Keir Starmer’s alternative of a constitutional convention” – is far too late and offers far too little. If that had been put forward in 2014 or thereabouts, it would have been a good idea. Now? Now, it is seen as a fence-sitting position, as a sign that Labour have got no good ideas and the ones they do have, they don’t believe in. But, let’s give the new boy a chance, he’s only been in post for a few weeks, maybe by the time the referendum comes (and it will come, the question is just when), he will have found his feet and can put forward an actual opinion and a real suggestion.

      “The problem for the pro-Union Scottish Conservatives” – have you seen the leader? In one of the recent debates, he got told by a participant to grow up! If he ever became FM … I don’t even want to think about it!

      Apologies for diving into your post (which makes many good points), but I thought it important to add some comments with a Scottish perspective; eg you mention Starmer, but he is not important in IndyRef#2 context, he’s irrelevant.

  19. Had Cameron asked for a super-majority; enfranchised (settled) EU citizens in the UK; those of us living and working in Europe; and honoured his promise to give all Brits abroad the right to vote (after 15 years), the vote would (just as narrowly) have gone the other way. Cameron is guilty of a stupendous lack of serious thought about the referendum and what might go wrong (UK media hostility; hostility against the Tories; hostility against him; the ignorance of the public (and virtually all the politicians) on what the EU was, how it worked, how it helped us, how it amplified the UK’s voice etc, etc).

    Ken Clarke put it best when he said that Cameron would be remembered by history as the man who accidentally pulled the UK out of the EU (and he didn’t say – then ran away). But it is still Johnson!

    1. “Ken Clarke put it best when he said that Cameron would be remembered by history as the man who accidentally pulled the UK out of the EU (and he didn’t say – then ran away). But it is still Johnson!” – I agree with you re Johnson.

      As regards Cameron – I have got a smidgeon of respect for the man, not much, maybe a thimble full and that is because he resigned on the 24th June. That way, he took himself out of the events and developments of the referendum result and thus gave his successor a clean-ish slate to work from: His successor could then use the referendum result and carry out the following moves: Commission some impact assessments and economic outcome studies, s/he could commission a constitutional commission to consider various options, s/he could hold public focus groups to engage the public how Brexit should be effected, s/he could organise some roadshows to spread information about how the EU worked and how the UK could work outside. That could take up about two years or so, by that time the government could have developed a plan, a plan which would consider the benefits of the single market and customs union and they could be preserved to support the UK economy. Also, during that time, the government could have given serious thought of how the NI issue could/should be dealt with.

      But instead May as his successor, did not take up the breathing space and wiggle room Cameron had given her: Instead of considering options and planning, she jumped into the Brexit issue with her four feet of kitten-heeled shoes and instead of dialling down any Brexit fervour, stoked it further. Her laying down her three (incompatible) red lines in her Lancaster speech, she so utterly boxed herself into a corner – that was really which sealed her fate.

      1. You’re bang on, but most if not all politicians are only interested in being in power, and with scant regard for any kind of moral obligation of acting in the best interests of the country, i.e. all the people in it. There seems little chance of any radical change for the foreseeable future regrettably.

    2. I am not convinced that it would have gone the other way.
      In the circumstances of it being a “Once in a generation” vote, and given the advisory nature of the referendum, there was only one result that the electorate could reasonably deliver.

      In a once in a generation chance to vote for change, how could we condone voting to keep things the same?
      A “Yes” vote would have been a vote for hubris and Cameron would have taken it as a resounding endorsement for him personally and his party and policies.
      Conversely a “No” vote would have been to say: “You’re lying, we know you’re lying and you know we know you’re lying.
      You cannot be trusted to keep your promises and we don’t trust you to keep this one.”

  20. Interesting that all three of their premierships are basically entirely defined by Brexit. It’s hard to look at any of their records in office and say, “Yes but think about these other (possibly positive) things they did.”

    Johnson’s time will of course also be remembered for how he has dealt with coronavirus. But I doubt history will see that as a positive.

  21. Cameron also followed Blair’s egregious precedent in making parliament decide upon going to war. The fact that they chose not to be part of the Libyan disaster is irrelevant – the obligation should sit with the Prime Minister NOT parliament.

  22. Tony Blair and David Cameron each made one terrible decision. They would probably be viewed rather differently if they had not been put in the position enabling them to make it.

    Dave’s first administration made fast progress in liberalising social attitudes and practice. I couldn’t believe it, under the Tories? Whatever else happened, that was big and hard to reverse. The worst Tory economic tendencies had also been avoided, for all the shortcomings of Osbourne’s economic management. Inequality was in fact slightly down – and Dave was proud of it – having earlier increased substantially under both Thatcher and Major.

    But then he came up with this appalling policy of the referendum. Substantial blame must lie with the electorate for voting him in to implement it. Many did not see it as such a terrible thing, and many did see Milliband’s policies as terrible. Though Milliband’s follies were more reversible.

    And let us not forget that there were also those in the Labour Party who wanted to offer us a referendum. If the 2015 election had had a different outcome, someone else might well have had the desire and power to make the same mistake at a later date.

  23. Good essay question. Cameron and May are damned with the benefit of hindsight. Cameron for being cavalier and May for the opposite. Neither come out well though Cameron is the worse of the two in my opinion, Greensill is just the latest episode, there may be more to come.

    Johnson is damned for his personal traits, most of which are far worse than anything Cameron can conjure up. But is it too early to damn him as a politician, as PM? He has bounced back and forth in the polls and is a liar, untrustworthy and a clown, but these qualities do not mean he can’t still come out of this with an enhanced reputation. This flies in the face of all the evidence on Brexit so far, but Brexit isn’t everything. If he holds the Union together, comes out well from Covid and does not get into a trade war with the EU, will future commentators come up with a different assessment? To quote Chou en Lai on the French Revolution, it is too early to tell though of course we still don’t know which revolution he was referring to and it may well be a long wait to get an answer for Johnson.

  24. I certainly agree Cameron’s was the worst sin and completely unnecessary. Apart from not calculating the risk why hold a referendum for something you don’t believe in? Moreover, what you don’t mention is the way in which, having landed the country into a huge crisis, he simply jumped ship. You steer the ship into an iceberg, it’s your responsibility to take responsibility for saving whatever is possible of the crew, passengers and ship. Cameron’s actions were that of a total coward. I think May showed a complete and utter arrogance in her handling of the situation. As for Johnson, it’s all been said. What paucity of intelligence we have in government, the system is broken.

    1. Well that’s simple: he held the referendum because he was certain that he would win it.
      But it wasn’t the holding of the referendum that was the problem, it was the fact that when he got wind of the idea that the electorate intended to treat the advisory referendum as an advisory referendum, he forbade them from doing that. I refer to the Chatham House speech.

      What could be more fundamentally undemocratic than a prime minister seeking to command the electorate in the nature of their voting?

  25. I cannot agree that Cameron was the worst. While he made a disastrous error, it was still recoverable – as suggested on this blog. It would have been possible to negotiate a Brexit in name only, or other relatively favourable deal, or defer it forever while makig preparations, or just disregard a vote that was only supposed to be advisory.

    May was worse – she triggered article 50 in haste and created a very bad negotiating position as no deal would have been worse for the UK than the EU, and the EU could just wait it out putting on more and more pressure. She had the same options available as Cameron, and in addition since it was hot her idea to call the vote, she had much greater freedom to distance herself from it.

    Johnson was clearly the worst. Quite apart from the point that he was a keen supporter of Brexit, he betrayed the Northern Ireland unionists and divided the country. He also did so by rushing through the deal at the last minute to ensure it could not be scrutinised.

    1. Johnson wasn’t a “keen supporter of Brexit”. Remember the two draft speeches/articles. Johnson has only ever been for himself. He jumps on any vehicle going – even a large, red bus – to speed him on his way to glutted self-indulgence.

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