Skip to main content

5 Shortest Serving British Prime Ministers

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I am a former maths teacher who loves writing about anything that pops into my head.

10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister of the UK.

10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister of the UK.

A Quick History of British Prime Ministers

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of government in the UK and generally the leader of their specific political party, or a coalition of parties, which, at the time, has the most seats in the House of Commons (the lower house of the British parliament). They are granted permission by the UK monarch to form their government, and then are responsible for chairing the cabinet and selecting its members.

The first British prime minister is generally regarded to be Robert Walpole (1676–1745), a Whig politician who was appointed as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1721. Although the term 'Prime Minister' didn't officially exist at the time (it was occasionally used as an insult towards Walpole), it is generally agreed by historians that Walpole's role aligned with what we would now call a prime minister. The current prime minister is still the First Lord of the Treasury, and it is through this role they gain the official residence of the famed address 10 Downing Street in London.

From Walpole through to Liz Truss in 2022, 56 politicians have served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In this article, we are now going to look at the five who served the shortest terms.

William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720–1764)

William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720–1764)

5. William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, Served 225 Days

The fifth longest serving British prime minister is William Cavendish, the 4th Duke of Devonshire. A Whig politician, he was appointed First Lord of the Treasury (hence regarded as prime minister) in November 1756. His administration was brought down in May 1757 largely due to opposition from King George II, with Cavendish having been in post for only 225 days.

Andrew Bonar Law (1858–1923)

Andrew Bonar Law (1858–1923)

4. Andrew Bonar Law, Served 211 Days

The fourth shortest serving prime minister, and the shortest serving of the 20th century, was the Conservative politician Andrew Bonar Law. Born in Canada in 1858, Law is one of only two British prime ministers to have been born outside of the British Isles (the other being Boris Johnson who was born in New York City). Law became prime minister in October 1922 upon the collapse of the David Lloyd George led coalition. He lasted just 211 days in the role before resigning in May 1923 due to ill health. He died from throat cancer later that year.

Frederich John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (1782–1859)

Frederich John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (1782–1859)

3. Frederich John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, Served 144 Days

At number 3 is Frederich John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (later known as 1st Earl of Ripon). He succeeded George Canning, who we will hear more about later, upon Canning's death in August 1827. His government was a fragile coalition of Tories and Whigs which Goderich was unable to keep together. Under pressure from King George IV, Goderich resigned in January 1828 after just 144 days in the role, to be replaced by a Tory government led by the Duke of Wellington.

George Canning (1770–1827)

George Canning (1770–1827)

2. George Canning, Served 119 Days

The second shortest term as prime minister belongs to George Canning, a Tory politician who was chosen ahead of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel to lead the Tories as prime minister. Unfortunately for Canning, Wellington and Peel, along with many other Tories, refused to serve under him, causing him to rely on support from the Whigs in a coalition government. Canning died from tuberculosis in August 1827 while still in office, after just 119 days in the role. He was succeeded by Viscount Goderich, number 3 in our list.

1. Liz Truss, Served 49 Days

Both the most recent prime minister to leave office and the new number one placeholder as shortest serving prime minister is Liz Truss. Truss assumed office as prime minister on September 6th, 2022 after the resignation of Boris Johnson, after winning a closely fought leadership contest against the outgoing chancellor Rishi Sunak. She faced a difficult start with the death of Queen Elizabeth II coming just two days after she took the role. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-reigning monarch in British history, holding the title for 70 years and 214 days.

It was her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng's mini-budget on 23rd September which started Truss's downfall. Containing a number of tax cuts and large-scale borrowing, without any apparent information on how this was to be funded, the mini-budget caused financial disruption and condemnation from many corners of society. Despite firing Kwarteng and backtracking on most of the budget, the damage was done. The resignation of Home Secretary Sue-Ellen "Suella" Braverman, alongside a disastrous vote in the House of Commons on fracking were the final straws. Liz Truss resigned on the morning of the 20th of October after just 45 days in the post.

On October 25th, 2022, Rishi Sunak—whom Truss had originally battled for the position in the first place—was named Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, meaning Liz Truss spent a grand total of 49 days in the role. Suella Braverman was then reinstated as Home Secretary.

Between September 6th, and October 25th, 2022, the United Kingdom had three prime ministers, while also saying goodbye to the longest serving monarch in history.

Further Reading

© 2022 David