The Top 10: Useless Leaders Reborn as National Treasures

Reversals of reputation after leaving office

John Rentoul
Friday 03 September 2021 15:10
<p>Michael Portillo, inauthentic pretender to the Tory leadership reinvented as a brightly coloured TV presenter</p>

Michael Portillo, inauthentic pretender to the Tory leadership reinvented as a brightly coloured TV presenter

Noah Cross said in Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough” (thanks to Martin Oldham for dredging that one up). I started this list with nos 6 and 8, and tried to avoid overlap with a recent Top 10, Historical Figures Undeservedly Rescued by Fiction.

1. Edward the Confessor. “A do-nothing king – literally so in dynastic terms – who bequeathed a succession crisis (and all that). Became a saint,” said Bill Dornan.

2. Wyatt Earp. “Failed to let elected Sheriff of Tombstone; was never a US marshal; was lucky not to be indicted for murder after the gunfight which, by the way, didn’t take place in the OK Corral; and, also by the way, never had a wife or girlfriend called Clementine; but became a national treasure after being played by Henry Fonda in the John Ford movie My Darling Clementine.” Thanks to Andy McSmith.

3. Winston Churchill. “Managed to recover somewhat from Dardanelles shame and 1930s exile,” said David Wilcock. Not quite the sort of thing I had in mind, but he was also nominated by Blair McDougall, Leo Donaghy and Conor Downey (who also suggested Clement Attlee) so I let him through.

4. Maurice Gamelin. “Disastrously led the French army in 1940, but given his more disastrous replacement by Maxime Weygand (who later collaborated) and his steadfastness for Republican values, was sort of rehabilitated later, especially after his role in the Battle of Castle Itter.” Nomination from James Dawson.

5. John F Kennedy. “A mediocre president reimagined as the martyred saint of the American left,” said Antisocial Socialist.

6. Jimmy Carter. Another indifferent president nominated by Cole Davis, Andy D and Jonn T. Rehabilitated because of his personal decency and subsequent espousal of every right-on global cause.

7. Jim Hacker. Prime minister in the Yes, Prime Minister series. “He was without doubt out of his depth, ineffectual and easily manipulated. Since he left our screens, though, Jim Hacker, and the actor portraying him, Paul Eddington, plus the series itself and the prequel have been elevated to near reverence in the UK.” Thanks to Robert Boston.

8. John Major. Unable to unite a divided party as prime minister, he later ingratiated himself with liberal Remainer opinion by telling it what it wanted to hear.

9. Michael Portillo. Brittle, right wing and inauthentic as a pretender to the Tory leadership; reinvented as a brightly coloured TV presenter. Nominated by David Herdson.

10. Ed Balls. As with Portillo, both liberated and massively more popular after leaving office, when his main job as shadow chancellor was being annoying to David Cameron. Thanks to Iain Lindley.

Honourable mention for two third-party leaders. I don’t think David Steel, Liberal leader from 1976 to 1988, ever qualified as a national treasure, but he did prompt Michael Foot to say he “passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever” (nominated by James Dawson). And Tim Farron (nominated by Dan Shepley) has a nice line in post-leadership plain speaking.

Next week: False details of real events, such as David Mellor’s Chelsea shirt in his affair with Antonia de Sancha.

Coming soon: Bass guitarists.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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