British politics is unsure of how to cope with its politicians at the best of times. Whether in the media or public discourse, we are used to criticising them relentlessly for their action or inaction. Lazy analysis will smear politicians as all the same and only in it for themselves, even when there is widespread evidence to the contrary. The expenses scandal however, which did involve criminal prosecutions, certainly didn’t help things for politicians.
Yet this is nothing compared to the plight of the former Prime Minister. You may be surprised at me for having any sympathy at all with them. They have held the highest political office in the UK, no doubt have enough financial wealth to last their lives, can remain internationally respected with a huge contacts book and have the security of police protection for life. Such financial and political clout is a form of liberation, but, whisper it, also one of entrapment.
Police protection will want to know your every move; the notion of privacy is, at best, severely limited. The first line of your obituary has been written, it is near impossible that you will ever do something that commands such a reputation. Apart from Harold Wilson, Prime Ministers nearly always leave office in failure, banished from Downing Street by their party or the electorate. Britain must face an uncomfortable truth: we don’t know what to do with our former Prime Ministers.
For inspiration, whether we like it or not, the UK tends to gaze across the pond to America. There, despite all the rules Donald Trump continues to break, there is at least more certainty. Presidents leave the White House, retreat into obscurity (usually by choice) and spend time developing their Presidential libraries. That way, there is an archive of their work and the opportunity for judgement. Former Presidents can also spend time working on projects important to them. For example, Jimmy Carter, who left office in January 1981, has invested time in encouraging widespread house building.
Former Presidents always seem to hold a greater sense of assurance and certainty in themselves. Part of this is no doubt the semantics: after leaving the White House, Presidents continue to be addressed as that most highest of offices. In Britain, you go overnight from Prime Minister to Mrs May. Former Prime Ministers always seem far more awkward, unclear of where they should stand. Do you criticise your successors and the alternative party in government? Do you give press and media interviews? Or is the time away from the spotlight after the years of political pressure relished?
Former Prime Ministers appeared to have made the decision for themselves. Over recent months and years, we have witnessed the return of Prime Ministers entering the public discussion. Usually by choice, they have delved into key current affairs issues despite leaving Number 10, issuing their verdict on what should take place. The age of deference, where former Prime Ministers recognised their social and political inferiority to their successors, appears to have well and truly ended.
This is not always a bad thing. Theresa May, who left office in 2019, remains a constituency MP in the House of Commons and therefore has constituents to represent. As a backbencher, she’ll want to be their voice in Parliament and ensure issues of her own interest can be addressed. Though previously loyal to Johnson’s government, she has recently become a thorn in their side over two issues. Firstly, the extension of coronavirus restrictions, not least on international travel. May has argued that society must be willing to accept that new variants will arise regarding Covid.
This is a speech that will gain traction, specifically because she is a former Prime Minister. Whatever our criticisms of politicians and leaders, their words have a significant impact and effect on policy. It was also striking that Theresa May was announced as one of the key rebels on the government’s proposals to cut international aid. Even though the amendment requiring the government to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid was not placed to a vote because it fell outside the remit of the bill, its very discussion was significant.
Theresa May is not simply an exception. Granted, she has chosen to remain in the House of Commons and play an active role as a backbencher. Most Prime Ministers after leaving Downing Street either immediately resign their seat or play a minimal role in parliamentary proceedings. That being said, it doesn’t stop their involvement in political affairs. David Cameron, in sheer embarrassment from the Brexit vote, has spent most of his post-premiership out of the limelight, writing his memoirs in an expensive shed. However, it was discussions over his relationship with Greensill Capital, especially over his earnings and contact with ministers in the midst of the pandemic, that led him to appear before parliamentary select committees. Generally, the scale of lobbying is perceived to have diminished his reputation and led to widespread questions over the role lobbying should play in the actions of ministers.
I’ve come to realise that the way leaders are regarded after their premiership is often in inverse proportion to their successes in office. Gordon Brown is not regarded as an overwhelmingly successful Prime Minister. He lost the only election he fought, dealt with the aftermath of the financial crisis and was unable to achieve most of his domestic education. However, in his post-premiership, there have been far more positive stories.
Brown has been a beacon for speaking out on progressive issues. Though he remained an MP between 2010 and 2015, he rarely involved himself with parliamentary proceedings. Instead, he has campaigned on issues like ensuring education can be accessible for all. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and 2016 EU referendum respectively, he played a pivotal part in trying to ensure a No and Remain vote respectively. And on vaccines, Brown has been a voice for ensuring widespread global distribution can take place.
Vaccine engagement is similarly a cause that has exercised Tony Blair. Blair in particular looks like someone who feels at the prime of their political knowledge and wishes they were taking office now. Even though political factors like Iraq will ensure that never takes place, he has re-entered the public discussion on a frequent basis to try and frame the ideas that should take place. Speech after speech was given in the midst of the Brexit crisis, with Blair arguing a referendum and remain should be the ideal scenario.
When that battle ended, Blair has become a frequent voice on the future for Labour and whether it can win an election ever again. Writing a piece for the New Statesman, he argued it has to chance entirely. While clearly wanting Keir Starmer to do well, there are questions to remain over whether he can. Given Blair was the last Labour leader to win an election since Harold Wilson, his voice clearly holds weight. And on Covid, Blair has been an unsurprisingly arch proponent of vaccine passports, a mirror image of his identity card scheme thankfully abolished under Theresa May.
Though John Major doesn’t speak up as a Prime Minister as much as his successors, that doesn’t mean he has nothing to say. Despite leaving office in 1997, the very fact that he was Prime Minister means his interventions will receive a hearing. For example, in the Brexit campaign, Major made a statement on the importance of trying to preserve peace in Northern Ireland. Similarly, In the 2019 general election, Major received criticism for endorsing three independent candidates who used to be Conservative MPs (none of them won).
This is clearly a new precedent. After leaving office, Edward Heath simply embarked on a great big sulk. Remaining in the House of Commons for 27 years after being toppled, his loathing for Margaret Thatcher was apparent. As for the first female Prime Minister, her quite rapid mental decline meant her interventions on current affairs diminished. There is obviously something in the water. The words that such leaders use will always have an impact. The question is whether current incumbents of Parliament or Downing Street choose to take any notice.
Noah enjoys writing a blog and drinking tea