Some years ago, I thought of a deceptively simple question to ask a prospective prime minister: “Do you have any doubts about your ability to fulfil the role of prime minister?” Over the years, nine of them replied.
The first was Labour’s Harold Wilson. “I have no doubt it is a gruelling job, The prime minister is finally responsible for all policy. But he can’t know all the detail, and I’d be a fool if I tried. And I’d take good care that somebody in the cabinet does and he can tell me when it’s needed.”
The Tories’ Ted Heath answered with a two-letter word: “No.”
Jim Callaghan told me: ‘I’m going to be very arrogant. I had no doubts at all about my capacity to be prime minister of this country – and I took it on with complete confidence.”
Margaret Thatcher answered: “Well, I look at some of the other people who’ve held the job, and I really…” – she paused – “Of course you have doubts. And you’re tremendously aware of the responsibility. But I haven’t just come to this out of the blue. In British politics you don’t just go from the bottom to the top, you climb your way up the ladder.”
John Major said: “I didn’t know whether I could do the job. I wasn’t expecting it yet. But when you walk through the door of Number 10 Downing Street, reality walks in with you.”
Tony Blair said: “I’ve got a feeling that if you have a strong idea of what you want to do and believe in pushing it through, then you are in inverted commas ‘a dictator’ – if you are not, then you are weak. You know – you pays your money and you takes your choice.”
“Look.” replied David Cameron, “if I had major doubts I wouldn’t have put myself forward to lead my party in the first place. You have to be absolutely ready to take the big decisions, including sending troops to war. And I decided I was ready for that.”
His successor said: “My pitch is very simple: I’m Theresa May, and I’m the best person to be prime minister.”
Boris Johnson replied: “I think people who don’t have doubts or anxieties about their ability to do things probably have something terrifyingly awry. We all have worries and insecurities. And I think it’s a very tough job being prime minister. Obviously, if the ball were to come loose from the back of a scrum – which it won’t – it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”
Prime ministers come in all shapes and sizes and I’ve been lucky enough to make films over the last 50 years about what they are really like. Here are some of my findings:
From her formative years, Margaret Thatcher had developed a profound distrust of Germany. It was ironic, therefore, that within days of becoming prime minister in 1979 her first official foreign visitor was Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democratic chancellor of West Germany. “Why is he coming, I didn’t ask for it”’ she complained to the cabinet secretary.
In her speech at a Number 10 dinner on Schmidt’s arrival, Mrs Thatcher warned that she would not be “a soft touch” in European matters. The following day, the two leaders emerged for a joint press conference and I asked Schmidt: “Without wishing to appear indelicate, do you think Mrs Thatcher will be a soft touch?”
‘‘No, I don’t think so,’ he answered. “And I guess she wouldn’t consider the Germans to be a soft touch either.” Mrs Thatcher chipped in: “Mr Cockerell, you are very, very aware that the policies that the chancellor follows in Germany are not unlike the policies we have. We both believe in free enterprise. And if we could emulate his tax system, I’m sure everyone here would stand up and cheer.”
“Don’t go too far, Prime Minister,” said Schmidt in riposte, “and do not spoil my relations with my own party please.” Cue laughter, both on the platform and in the packed hall, at the revelation that Germans have a sense of humour.
The last time I interviewed Mrs Thatcher as prime minister was when she was celebrating her tenth anniversary in Number 10. It was a pretty surreal experience. She talked to me looking into the middle distance, almost as if she were Joan of Arc hearing voices.
I had earlier asked Willie Whitelaw, her recently retired Deputy PM, how long he felt Mrs Thatcher would continue in office: “Oh, she is very fit, very strong. I hope she’ll go on for a very long time,” he replied.
“But she is not immortal,” I ventured to suggest.
“No, she is not immortal,” responded Whitelaw, before adding: “But perhaps she is.” When I recounted these words on camera to the PM, a remarkable look came over her face for a moment – an apparent mix of alarm and blinding revelation. Then she said: “What a sweet thing of Willie to say. No, I am not immortal, and I don’t know how long I will go on – and no one does.”
The first time I pointed a TV camera at Blair was during a by-election in 1982. He was standing for Labour in the true-blue seat of Beaconsfield. I said in my report: “Tony Blair looks exactly like the kind of young man that the matrons of Beaconsfield would be happy to see escorting their daughters to the Young Conservatives Ball.”
When the Labour leader Michael Foot joined Blair on the campaign trail I asked him how he saw Labour’s chances. “Tony Blair is a wonderful candidate,” said Foot. “And whatever the result here, he is going to have a big future in British politics.”
Blair lost his deposit, but the following year he quoted Foot’s words when he applied to stand for Sedgefield. He won the nomination and Foot’s elegy may well have hastened Blair’s elevation to Westminster.
Throughout his time as PM, Tony Blair regarded his personal relationship with the US President as key. Having bonded with Bill Clinton, Blair wanted to repeat the trick with the Republican George W. Bush. Then came 9/11.
When the terrorist planes crashed into the twin towers, Blair was in Brighton addressing the TUC while his chief of Staff Jonathan Powell was in Number 10. Powell told me: “In the immediate aftermath, I suddenly realised how little we knew about the Taliban: we hadn’t really had them on our radar at all. So I walked down Whitehall to the Waterstones on Trafalgar Square and bought all the books I could find on the Taliban.
“And the only one that was any use was by Ahmed Rashid. So, I sat at my desk and read it for the next twelve hours – the whole book. And Alastair Campbell and Tony became very jealous and wanted to have my copy, but they had to wait. Alastair I think read it first and Tony after that: so then we were all the experts on the Taliban.”
The following year, with Number 10 insisting no decision had been taken about the rumoured invasion of Iraq, I interviewed Blair. I put to him a quote from a former US defence secretary that what America asks of Britain at a time of crisis is: “Are the Brits prepared to send troops, are they prepared to pay the blood price?”
Blair replied without hesitation: “Yes. They need to know, are you prepared to commit, are you prepared to be there when the shooting starts?”
As I left Number 10, I remembered that when Blair had stood for Beaconsfield twenty years earlier, the campaign had been dominated by news of British advances in the Falklands war. And Blair’s former foreign secretary Robin Cook had told me that Blair had said: “The thing I learned from Beaconsfield is that wars make prime ministers popular”.
When I made a TV portrait of David Cameron, I was struck by the fact that every previous leader I had made a film about became leader and then got themselves a spin doctor. Cameron was the ultimate identity bender: the spin doctor who became leader.
As PM, he agreed to let us film him when I made a behind-the-scenes series Inside the Commons. Cameron said: “You do feel a real sense of history in this place. It’s half like a museum, half like a church, half like a school.” Clearly an unusual school, where three halves make a whole.
The PM had chosen to entrust the vexatious question of our EU membership to a referendum. He passionately wanted Boris Johnson, whom he called “my very good friend”, on his side. But Johnson would not commit himself.
In February 2016, as he was about to announce the date of the referendum, Cameron says: “I was texting Boris furiously, saying if you’re not sure, don’t take the course that you fundamentally think is wrong for the country.” Johnson pinged Cameron back; “I have been a tortured soul, but I have to go with my heart and support Leave.”
But two hours later came a fresh text from Johnson saying: “Depression is setting in,” and that he was “dithering” and might change his mind and back Remain after all. Then Johnson went incommunicado.
He was due to deliver his weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. I had learned that Johnson wrote two articles – one putting the case for the status quo; the other for Brexit. Johnson’s sister, Rachel, had read both drafts and told me she thought his case for staying in was the more powerful and persuasive.
When I later put this to Johnson on the referendum campaign trail, without revealing the name of my informant, he huffed and puffed: “Well… on the contrary… the one… I don’t know… what your conceivable sources for that information may be… Perhaps, what I can say is that the second article said… erm… irrespective of my objections to the way the EU was going, in order to support my party and the prime minister it would be better to stay in… and I thought in the end that wasn’t a good enough reason.”
“I felt my brother had backed the wrong side, quite possibly not for entirely selfless reasons,” says Rachel Johnson. “But his rat-like nose for power – and channelling the sublime instincts and soaring desires of the British people – could not ever be doubted.”
After the shock Leave victory, Cameron announced he was resigning as prime minister. Johnson left it for a few hours and then texted Cameron: “Dave, I am so sorry to have been out of touch, but I couldn’t think of what to say. And now I am absolutely miserable about your decision. You have been a superb PM and leader and your country owes you eternally.” Rachel’s 19-year-old son, Oliver, told his mother: “Boris has just stolen our futures.”
And Cameron told the former Europe minister Sir Alan Duncan at a breakfast: “Boris ruined my bloody career.”
On the July day in 2019 that Boris Johnson became prime minister, he received a text from Churchill’s grandson. His old friend and fellow Etonian, Nicholas Soames, told me: “In the text I texted that on the day my grandfather became prime minister, he opened a bottle of champagne with the family. And he proposed a toast: ‘Here’s to not buggering it up.’ And I said to Boris in the text: ‘I pray for all our sakes that you don’t bugger it up.’ And that is my hope for Boris.”
“And what is your fear?” I asked. “My fear is that he could bugger it up.”
It was a fear shared by many. “There is a spectrum of opinion about Boris Johnson,” Peter Hennessy, the constitutional historian, told me. “One is that he will be the most unsafe pair of hands ever to open a prime ministerial red box. And at the other end, people think here is a man of brilliance and flair. I veer to the anxiety end of the spectrum – because you cannot busk being prime minister.”
And Rory Stewart, who served as a Foreign Office minister under Johnson, said: “[He] is the most accomplished liar in public life – perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister.”
His premiership so far has been like no other I’ve filmed over the years. It has resembled a Netflix series penned by a scriptwriter on speed, blending Shakespeare, Monty Python and The Sopranos.
The new PM wasted no time in asserting his authority. In an unprecedentedly brutal reshuffle, Johnson sacked 17 Cabinet ministers who had not voted for him in the leadership election or were not sufficiently Brexit-y, or had crossed him in other ways. He was living out what he said was his favourite movie scene: “The multiple retribution killings at the end of The Godfather.”
Though viewers have seen images galore of Johnson’s public face, glimpses of what he is really like are rare. A former senior mandarin told me: “In order to understand Boris Johnson, you need to observe his face in repose, when he is off stage. The humour and bonhomie evaporate in an instant and all you see is the cold calculus of reason as he weighs which prank, witticism or jibe will best serve his interests. It is surely revealing that when he is off guard and lets slip, he easily resorts to words of the ‘let the bodies piling high in the street’ genre.”
When filming with Johnson over many years, I have always noticed how swiftly he shrinks from any self-analysis, which he dismisses as “psychobabble”. His estranged former consigliere, Dominic Cummings, maintains that Johnson is a much more complex character than he appears.
“Behind each mask lies another mask,” says Cummings. “But there’s no masterplan behind all the masks, just the age-old ‘will to power’. He is happy to hide behind the mask of a clown, mostly unbothered by ridicule, while calculations remain largely hidden, including from parts of his own mind.”
The prime minister has a clear-eyed sense of what his own political fate will be. As he once wrote: “Politics is the constant recognition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture: of how we make kings for our societies and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth.”
Michael Cockerell’s new book Unmasking our Leaders – Confessions of a Political Documentary-makeris published by Biteback. You can order your copy from the Tortoise Book Store.
Photograph by John Downing