‘to throw someone under the bus’: meaning and origin

The colloquial phrase to throw someone under the bus (originally to push someone under a bus) means: to abandon or betray someone, especially a colleague or friend, in order to protect or advance one’s own interests.

This phrase occurred in its original form, to push someone under a bus, in the following from How the Benn-ites plan to take control… with this man leading the assault on County Hall, published in The New Standard (London, England) of Tuesday 28th April 1981:

LONDONERS go to the polls on Thursday next week to elect the administration that will run County Hall for the next four years.
Labour expects a handsome victory over Sir Horace Cutler’s Tories and for the first time the ambitious Left-wing is making a powerful bid for control of the GLC [i.e., the Greater London Council].
Ken Livingstone, a firm supporter of Tony Benn, and fighting Paddington, is set to lead an unprecedented team of hardline Left-wing candidates.
He says of Labour’s proposals: “When you look at them in detail you see that really they are not as radical as they have been made out to be. There is not a lot in there that the SDLP would not accept.
“The manifesto was voted for by everyone and that alone is a victory.
“You can talk about left-wing takeover and control but the fact is that it would not matter if Ted Knight and I were pushed under a bus tomorrow. The group would press on with the manifesto anyway.”

The phrase to push someone under a bus originated in British politics in the 1960s. In fact, by 1982, it had become so common that the British journalist Michael White (born 1945) wrote of a politician being “pushed under the proverbial bus” in When nobody loves a lord, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Tuesday the 6th of April of that year:

Lord Carrington 1 […] had been the one undisputed success of Mrs Thatcher’s 2 Government. […]
[…] If Mrs Thatcher were pushed under the proverbial bus might not Carrington be the man? He was not identified with her economic policies—far from it in private—and didn’t everyone love a lord?

1 The British Conservative politician Peter Carington (1919-2018), 6th Baron Carrington, was Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary from 4th May 1979 to 5th April 1982. He resigned from his position, taking full responsibility for the failure to foresee the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2nd April 1982.
2 The British Conservative politician Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.

The phrase to push someone under a bus was applied to categories of people in the account of a parliamentary debate about the new unemployment statistics, by Michael White, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Friday 19th November 1982:

On and on he went. New statistics had already been appointed to replace the dead ones. The change would save the unemployed the bother of going to the Jobcentre, save 1,350 staff the bother of having jobs at all, and save Mr Tebbit 3 £10 million a year. The figure would also be much more accurate. Obviously a great boon to mankind. And finally, er, yes, the new system did actually reduce the unemployment total.
Opposition MPs were naturally incensed. Mr Eric Varley, fighting to keep his own front bench job, protested that, far from providing real jobs as it had promised, the Government was now not even providing real statistics. Other MPs were even crueller. They had never really trusted the old statistics and they could see whole categories of the unemployed being pushed under a bus by the new ones.

3 The British Conservative politician Norman Tebbit (born 1931), Baron Tebbit, was Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Employment from 1981 to 1983.




In British English, before it was applied to politics, the image of pushing (or merely wishing) someone under a bus, or of someone accidentally falling under a bus, was already used in relation to one’s own professional or financial interests—in particular in the domain of insurance policies.

The earliest occurrences of this image that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From If you’re dishonest, ruthless, selfish, disliked… You may be boss material, by Bill Grant, published in the Western Daily Press (Bristol, England) of Tuesday 11th February 1964:

In America and Britain claims are being made that it is possible to tell by tests whether or not men are of executive calibre.
In one test applicants are asked questions like these:
Could you face the world knowing that 90 per cent of your colleagues wish you were under a bus?
A Yes answer is supposed to indicate you are of boss material. […]
In America, it is popular to put the question: “Could you sack a lovable old muddler with five children?”
A negative answer and you will not reach the boardroom. An affirmative answer shows you are director material.

2-: From the following television review, by Laurence Shelley, published in The Crewe Chronicle (Crewe, Cheshire, England) of Saturday 20th February 1965:

A casual affair between a disillusioned insurance saleswoman, all surface patter and no depth and a dotty commercial artist substituted for real drama in The Lady with the Albatross (Armchair Theatre). It was a bit too improbable a set-up for me, especially that half-hearted seduction scene built round a cup of cocoa. Instead of going to live with him, she should have taken out a life policy with herself as chief beneficiary—and then shoved him under a bus.

3-: From an advertisement for the Save-Insure-and-Prosper plan offered by Save and Prosper Insurance Limited, London—advertisement published in many British newspapers in 1967 and 1968; for example in The Crewe Chronicle (Crewe, Cheshire, England) of Thursday 17th August 1967:

Protecting your family
Under a bus the day you join, and your dependants get a small fortune.

4-: From the column Your money matters, by Robert Head, published in the Sunday Mirror (London, England) of Sunday 12th May 1968:

It is not necessary to set aside a fixed percentage of your income for insurance. Ask your self first: “Have I made sure that I have enough insurance cover to keep the family going if I fall under a bus?”

5-: From the account of the annual meeting of Hull City Association Football Club, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 23rd July 1968—Harold Needler was the club’s chairman:

When he invited questions on the balance sheet, Mr Needler was asked about the repayment of part of the loan he made to the club, and he replied: “I think the directors felt that if I fell under a bus this would be a sizeable loan to repay and that they wanted to reduce it.”

6-: From the column Family finance: A weekend guide to your money, by Richard Sleight, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 27th November 1971:

“IF YOU HAVEN’T pushed your husband under a bus before he retires? don’t bother to do so afterwards. You’ve left it too late.” I hasten to add this is not the advice of this column but the message that is written into many of today’s pension schemes.




Preliminary note: The following facts seem to indicate that the political use of under a bus originally referred to—or was initiated by—Harold Wilson 4:
– the political phrase to walk under a bus was ascribed to Harold Wilson in 1966;
– the political phrase to go under a bus referred to Harold Wilson in 1971;
– the first known user of the political phrase to push someone under a bus was Harold Wilson during an interview on British television in 1971.

4 The British politician Harold Wilson (1916-1995), Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, was Leader of the Labour Party from 1963 to 1976, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from October 1964 to June 1970, and again from March 1974 to April 1976.


In British politics, the phrase was originally to walk (also to drop, to go, to fall, etc.) under a bus. The first two occurrences that I have found are from the column Inside Politics, by Logan Gourley, published in The People (London, England):

1-: Of Sunday 1st May 1966—Logan Gourley ascribed the phrase to Harold Wilson:

KING HAROLD. Or Wonder Wilson. Or the Yorkshire Wizard. Whatever title the Prime Minister is given by admirers and headline writers there is no doubt that he is firmly established as the Number One, the unassailable leader.
But who is Number Two? Officially, of course, the answer is George Brown. Yet it’s doubtful that he would succeed if Wilson, to use his own phrase, walked under a bus.
In other words Chancellor Jim Callaghan 5 is winning the battle for power […].
The other contenders like Michael Stewart 6, Ray Gunter, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins will certainly be staking and developing their claims.
Though they are all able and, in some cases, brilliant men, it’s to be hoped, however, in the interests of the country and the party, that King Harold avoids that bus.

5 The British politician James Callaghan (1912-2005) was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1964 to 1967, Leader of the Labour Party from 1976 to 1980, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979.
6 The British politician Michael Stewart (1906-1990) was Secretary of State for Education and Science from 1964 to 1965, and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1965 to 1966.

2-: Of Sunday 12th June 1966—the phrase must have already been familiar, since Logan Gourley substituted the demonstrative that for the indefinite a although the noun bus appears nowhere else in his text:

When he [i.e., Michael Stewart] left the Ministry of Education to become Foreign Secretary, his standing in the Party was high. He was respected by the Left, supported by the Right.
At that stage he could regard himself as a possible successor to the leadership if Harold Wilson ever walked under that bus.

The phrase then occurred as to drop under a bus in the column Washington Newsletter, by Sam White, published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Wednesday 21st September 1966—that day, the topic was Lyndon B. Johnson’s 7 first thousand days as President of the USA:

The idea that the European cold war is over seems still unacceptable here [i.e., in Washington, D.C.] and the idea flourishes that NATO could be restored to its old vigour if de Gaulle 8 dropped under a bus the day after tomorrow. One gets the impression that the State Department looks on Europe as Roman Emperors once did—providers of garrison troops to man outlying ramparts of the Empire.

7 The Democrat politician Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was the President of the USA from 1963 to 1969.
8 Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was the President of the French Republic from 1959 to 1969.

The phrase then occurred as to go under a bus in a report on the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, published in the Liverpool Daily Post (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 10th October 1969:

The Tories would not dare, if Mr Heath 9 were to go under a bus, to elect Sir Alec Douglas Home 10 once again as their leader, writes Robin Oakley. But there is no doubt who, of the party’s senior figures, still has reserved for him the deepest niche in the hearts of the faithful.

9 The British politician Edward Heath (1916-2005) was Leader of the Conservative Party from 1965 to 1975, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1974.
10 The British politician Alexander Douglas-Home (1903-1995) was Leader of the Conservative Party from 1963 to 1965, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from October 1963 to October 1964.

The phrase then occurred as to go under a bus, as part of an extended metaphor, in the following from The Conspirators in Act Three, by Hugh MacPherson, published in The Spectator (London, England) of Saturday 23rd January 1971:

There is an amusing little parlour game much favoured by politicians. It is called ‘Let’s kill the Leader’, and, when played by Labour loyalists, it begins ‘Supposing Harold Wilson were to go under a bus…’ Needless to say ex-prime ministers do not usually find themselves in much danger of experiencing such a vulgar demise. They are much more liable to be done to death by a shining limousine. Indeed, in the case of Mr Wilson, such is the success of his literary efforts that he is much more likely to fall into a Rolls-Royce than under one.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase to push someone under a bus that I have found is from the account of an interview of Harold Wilson, broadcast on London Weekend Television on Sunday 1st August 1971—account by Francis Boyd, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 2nd August 1971:

Mr Wilson said he did not believe there had been any personal plots against him by his colleagues. Asked if he ever said to his colleagues: “They say in the papers today you’ve got a knife ready for my back,” he replied: “Good heavens no! What you need is a pretty broad pair of shoulders.
“I don’t think you can do business in this way, assuming that they’re going to do anything of the kind. A number of them say if I were to get under a bus they would be a candidate, but I certainly don’t interpret that as meaning they are going to push me under one. In any case, I’d stay on the pavement.”

The phrase then occurred as to fall (also to walk, etc.) under a bus in the following texts:

1-: From The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Wednesday 24th November 1971:

Labour’s ‘only leader’

Mrs. Barbara Castle, Opposition spokesman on employment, said last night that she could not serve in the Cabinet if Mr. Roy Jenkins were to become leader of the Labour Party and then Prime Minister.
In answer to a question in a BBC radio programme about the leadership of the party, Mrs. Castle said that unless Mr. Harold Wilson fell under a bus there was no other candidate for the party leadership.
She continued: “If you are talking about tomorrow, if you are talking about Mr. Harold Wilson under a bus and Mr. Jenkins as leader pledged to take us into the Common Market, of course I could not serve in any administration of his.”

2-: From Milne moves in as heir to Ramsey, by Mike Langley, in his column Talk of Sport, published in the Sunday People (London, England) of Sunday 21st May 1972:

BRIAN CLOUGH and Malcolm Allison are successors usually mentioned should Sir Alf Ramsey walk under a bus. As yet, no one’s spotted a little man from Wigan who could be ushered into the chair before you can say “Panel.”

3-: From Commons confidential: A weekly commentary from Westminster by George Gardiner, published in The Journal (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Monday 19th February 1973:

If Ted Heath fell under a bus

TIMES of crisis such as the Government has been through over the past week provide a good test of the relative strengths of Ministers.
[…] Robert Carr 11 […] has won applause from the Right for his sterner line on picketing, jail riots, pornography—and now by barring future influxes of Asian immigrants.
His exercise last week confirmed his stronger position of power in Cabinet and party.
A study of last week’s events helps provide a current answer to the perennial question: Who steps up if the P.M. falls under a No. 11 bus?
Carr would be front challenger to Chancellor Tony Barber—with Peter Walker probably making a bid from the wings.

11 Robert Carr (1916-2012), Baron Carr of Hadley, was Edward Heath’s Home Secretary from 1972 to 1974.

4-: From the account of the Men of the Year lunch at the Savoy Hotel, in London, during which Edward Heath, the Prime Minister, met the British comedian Mike Yarwood (born 1941)—account by Alan Gordon, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Thursday 8th November 1973:

Referring to Mike Yarwood’s TV send-ups of Mr. Harold Wilson and himself, Ted said: “If either of us should ever disappear under a bus, we have a ready-made substitute—without the expense of an election!”

5-: From the column London Day by Day, by ‘Peterborough’, published in The Daily Telegraph (London, England) of Friday 9th November 1973:

Spurn not the foreign born
THE American constitution precludes anyone born outside the United States from running for President, yet the appointment of a German-born Secretary of State and the election of an English-born Mayor of New York suggest that there could be some softening in this attitude.
The American Embassy in London tells me that the Secretary of State is in fact fifth in line of succession to the Presidency, so that in the unlikely event of the President, Vice-President and the three others nearest to the office all falling under a bus at the same time, there would be the impossible situation of a de facto President who was foreign-born.

6-: From an interview of the British writer, lecturer and filmmaker Edna Healey (née Edmunds – 1918-2010), the wife of the British Labour politician Denis Healey (1917-2015), who was then Harold Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer—interview by Sue Sellers, published in the Liverpool Daily Post (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Monday 30th September 1974—Prime Minister Harold Wilson was MP for Huyton:

IN THE not-too-likely event of the Honourable Member for Huyton falling under a bus to-morrow, there are those at Westminster who would tip Denis Healey as the man most likely to succeed.

7-: From People and power: The week in politics, by Matthew Coady, published in the Sunday People (London, England) of Sunday 17th November 1974:

Truth about the Tories

IS THERE no enterprising manufacturer ready to stake his luck on a new Christmas game? I have the name for it—Topple Ted!
It would need to be a good deal faster than the reality of finding a successor to Mr. Heath.
This promises to be slower than a funeral march.
And the way it is being conducted reveals the threadbare truth about the Conservative Party.
Look what they are doing. They are solemnly reviewing the method under which a leader should be elected.
In short, they are talking about the RULES when they should be talking about the MEN.
If Harold Wilson fell under a bus do you think the Labour Party would be fussing about the rule book?
Of course it wouldn’t.
It would be busy weighing the claims of Denis Healey against those of Jim Callaghan.
Whether he acknowledges it or not, Ted HAS fallen under a bus—driven by the British electorate.

8-: From Unlucky Jim!, by Victor Knight, published in the Sunday Mirror (London, England) of Sunday 25th January 1976:

BIG JIM is no longer top of the Labour pops.
James Callaghan’s rating has fallen sharply in the chart of political stars expecting to become Prime Minister.
For the past two years the Foreign Secretary has been widely regarded as the man most likely to succeed Harold Wilson.
Good, steady, reliable Jim, it was said, would take over if Harold fell under a bus or (you never know) decided to retire.

9-: From London Letter, by John Torode, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Wednesday 4th February 1976:

TROUBLE down at Westminster Labour Party. One of their more prominent members, Mr James Harold Wilson, a Prime Minister residing in Lord North Street, London SW 1, was, on December 12 made a Freeman of the City of London with due ceremony. Thus enabling his widow to move into a city almshouse if he falls under a bus, his orphans to claim free education, and so forth.

10-: From Will Mr. Wilson say goodbye to politics next year?… and if he does, who will succeed him?, by Charles Reiss, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Monday 9th February 1976:

The hoary old speculation about what would happen if the PM fell under a bus is now giving way to more earnest, realistic discussion.
Rightly or wrongly, some of the leading contenders for succession are beginning to tally up their support and calculate their chances.

11-: From the column Jane Cousins reports, published in the Runcorn Guardian (Runcorn, Cheshire, England) of Friday 21st May 1976:

I ATTENDED a lunch in the House of Commons last week in honour of Sir—I still can’t get used to the ‘sir’—Harold Wilson.
I was reminded of the time when, as plain old Mr Harold Wilson, Prime Minister, rumours would circulate about attempted cabinet coups and the efforts of jealous power-seeking cabinet colleagues to stab him in the back.
“What would happen,” his rivals would ask somewhat hopefully, “if Harold stepped under the number eleven bus?”
The best joke at the lunch came from the journalist who said, a propos his unexpected resignation: “When the number eleven bus came along, Sir Harold, you weren’t meant to be driving it!”

12-: From London Letter, by John Torode, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Thursday 21st October 1976:

Campaign of sorts
ONE THING the Foot camp and the Williams camp have in common—both expect Michael Foot to end up as the next leader of the Labour Party. The official announcement comes later today. But last night Mrs Williams’s friends were quietly telling sympathetic columnists that, if Shirley picked up 40 per cent of the vote she would have won “a moral victory” and be the obvious candidate for the leadership when Jim [Callaghan] decides to fall under a bus. And, as any sympathetic journalist knows, to claim a moral victory in politics is to admit defeat—at least in the short run.

13-: From The Daily Telegraph (London, England) of Monday 14th February 1977:

By Our Political Correspondent

Mr Michael Heseltine, shadow Environment Secretary, was given a standing ovation for his speech at the Young Conservatives conference at Eastbourne yesterday. He also came top of a popularity poll among 500 constituency representatives who were asked who should lead the party if Mrs Thatcher fell under a bus.

14-: From the column Close-up, by Martin Adeney, published in the Sunday Telegraph (London, England) of Sunday 17th April 1977:

FOR THE next 14 years, the fate of our industry and of Labour, if not national politics, is going to be heavily, perhaps decisively, influenced by a stocky 51-year-old Welshman.
The name is Moss (for Mostyn) Evans, and it will become as well known as that of Jack Jones. For on Thursday, unless he drops dead or falls under a bus, inevitably driven by one of his union’s members, Mr. Evans will be confirmed as the elected successor to Mr. Jones as general secretary of the country’s largest and most influential group of workers, the Transport and General Workers Union at a salary of £7,000 a year plus.

15-: From On your marks, an article about the upcoming General Election, by Derrick Hill, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Merseyside, England) of Thursday 7th September 1978—Derrick Hill substituted the demonstrative that for the indefinite a although the noun bus appears nowhere else in his text:

Mr Wedgwood Benn will be reflecting with some satisfaction on a poll published in the Economist in August which showed that a clear majority in a sample of Labour candidates now fighting in winnable Tory-held marginal seats said that he would be their first choice as Party leader should Mr Callaghan ever fall under that bus.
Mr Wedgwood Benn, you may be sure, will be fighting more than one election campaign.

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