‘He who wields the knife never wears the crown.’ It’s one of the great political cliches trotted out whenever the leader of a party comes under threat.
But, asks a reader*, where does the saying come from? Is it Shakespeare? The answer to the second question is straightforward: no, it’s not Shakespeare. Nor, so far as we can ascertain, has it any literary heritage at all.
It first became common currency in 1990 when Michael Heseltine challenged Margaret Thatcher, the incumbent prime minister. He defeated her, of course, removed her from office, but was then unable to build on his success, and saw the tortoise-like shape of John Major come ambling past him to snatch away the leadership of the Conservative Party.
And, indeed, the saying seems to originate with Heseltine himself. But not in 1990. He first said it in February 1986, the month after he had walked out of the cabinet – and seemingly into the wilderness – over the Westland affair. This, he feared, might well have destroyed his long-cherished dream of becoming prime minister. In an interview with New Society magazine, he said he was aware of the potential consequences: ‘I knew that he who wields the knife never wears the crown.’
At the time, his analysis was entirely wrong. Thatcher had proved an adept knife-wielder herself back in January 1975, when she had the temerity to challenge Edward Heath for the leadership. The following month, she had destroyed him in the first ballot, before going on to win outright on the second ballot. On the evidence available in 1986, it was perfectly possible to be both the assassin and the successor.
But Heseltine’s comment came back to haunt him when he finally made his move in 1990, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has also shaped perceptions of subsequent contests, and may even have had the effect of staying the hand of more than one would-be assassin, fearful of what might come next.
It isn’t true. Unless we all believe that it is.
* Please note: answering questions on political etymologies is not a service we generally offer. This may well be the only time we respond to such a query.