Shortest Serving British Prime Ministers

George Canning, the shortest-serving British PM in history.
George Canning, the shortest-serving British PM in history.

Over the years there have been British Prime Ministers who have served for a very short time, whether it be as a result of death, resignation, or more. The shortest tenure lasted less than four months. Here is a list of the shortest-serving prime ministers in British history. 

Shortest-Serving Prime Ministers

George Canning

George Canning was the shortest serving Prime Minister in British history. He served only 119 days in 1827. Canning enjoyed a fast rise in politics attributed to his intelligence, wit, and oratory skills. He was appointed Foreign Secretary in 1807, a post which made him famous. He out-smarted Napoleon by capturing the Danish Navy. He was lauded mainly for preventing the French from annexing South America. Canning succeeded Lord Liverpool as Prime Minister on 10 April 1827 through a coalition with the Whigs. Canning had become liberal as he supported the abolition of slavery. The name “Canningites” was coined for his ardent supporters. His legacy is that of the "lost leader" because he did not have enough time to accomplish much as Prime Minister. He died suddenly on 8 August 1827, of pneumonia barely five months after he took office.

Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich

Frederick John Robinson was the successor of George Canning as Prime Minister. He was the second-shortest serving prime minister, as he served only 130 days from August 31, 1827, to January 21, 1828. Family connections helped him enter into politics first as the private secretary to the Earl of Hardwicke. He was elected to Parliament in 1806 representing Carlow. He was elected as MP for Ripon a year after, a position he held until 1827. He was joint paymaster-general between 1813 and 1817 under Castlereagh. He was present when the Treaty of Paris of 1814 was negotiated. He reluctantly introduced the Corn Laws in Parliament. The laws were unpopular since they proposed stopping wheat imports to England. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1823 and 1827 and improved the economy through reduction of tax and customs duties. He was the leader of the Lords in 1827 and earned the title "viscount". He became Prime Minister on August 31, 1827, and was unable to unite a disintegrating coalition between the Whigs and the Tories. He resigned 130 days after.

Bonar Law

Andrew Bonar Law was born in September 1858 in Canada. His rise in politics saw him nominated to become Leader of the Conservative Party on November 13, 1911, as a compromise nominee succeeding Arthur Balfour. As the leader of the opposition party, Law pursued tariff reform and opposed the Irish Home Rule, which divided an already disunited Party. He attempted to unite the party through negotiating a coalition with Asquith after the First World War. He was Secretary of State for Colonies between 1915 and 1916 and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1916 to 1919. The conservatives elected to break off from the coalition and Law voted the Party Leader and Prime Minister. He served as Prime Minister for 211 days from October 23, 1922, to May 20, 1923, when he resigned. He died later that year of throat cancer. He made history by becoming the first Prime Minister born outside of the British Isles and for being the shortest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century. He is often called the "Unknown Prime Minister."

Other Prime Ministers Sitting Less Than One Year

Other UK Prime Ministers who were in office for less than one year include William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, who took office in 1756 and served for 225 days; William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, who took office in 1782 and served for 266 days, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, who took office in 1762 and served for 317 days; and Sir Alec Douglas-Home who took office in 1963 and served for 363 days.

Theresa May

Theresa May took office in 2016 as the Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister after the resignation of David Cameron over the Brexit referendum. Although May had also campaigned against leaving the European Union, she made it clear that the verdict of the people would stand. The government invoked Article 50 in March 2017 beginning the withdrawal process. She worked to negotiate a deal with the EU that would minimize the impacts of Brexit on the UK, but her deal was repeatedly defeated in Parliament. On May 24, 2019, May announced her resignation effective June 7, 2019. This will make her the fourth-shortest sitting British Prime Minister since the end of the Second World War and the 19th shortest sitting Prime Minister overall. 

Shortest Times In Office Among Prime Ministers Of The United Kingdom

RankPrime MinisterStartLength served
1George Canning1827119 days
2The Viscount Goderich1827130 days
3Bonar Law1922211 days
4The Duke of Devonshire1756225 days
5The Earl of Shelburne1782266 days
6The Earl of Bute1762317 days
7Sir Alec Douglas-Home1963363 days
8The Lord Grenville18061 year, 42 days
9The Duke of Grafton17681 year, 106 days
10The Earl of Rosebery18941 year, 109 days
11The Marquess of Rockingham17651 year, 113 days
12The Earl of Wilmington17421 year, 119 days
13Sir Anthony Eden19551 year, 279 days
14The Earl of Aberdeen18522 years, 42 days
15The Earl of Chatham17662 years, 76 days
16George Grenville17632 years, 85 days
17Henry Campbell-Bannerman19052 years, 122 days
18Spencer Perceval18092 years, 221 days
19Theresa May20162 years, 315 days (Incumbent)
20Gordon Brown20072 years, 319 days
21The Duke of Wellington18282 years, 320 days
22Neville Chamberlain19372 years, 348 days
23James Callaghan19763 years, 29 days
24Henry Addington18013 years, 54 days
25The Duke of Portland17833 years, 82 days
26Arthur Balfour19023 years, 145 days
27The Earl Grey18303 years, 229 days
28Edward Heath19703 years, 259 days
29The Earl of Derby18523 years, 280 days

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