The Ex-Files: What should former prime ministers do with the rest of their lives?
Former prime ministers Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major (PA Images/Alamy)
One day you’re feted by world leaders and fawning staff, the next you’re out on your ear. So what should a former premier do with the rest of their life? Robert Hutton explores the options
“Once I leave, I leave. I am not going to speak to the man on the bridge and I am not going to spit on the deck.” Stanley Baldwin’s promise for his conduct once he stopped being prime minister in 1937 is often offered as a model to his successors. Certainly Liz Truss must hope her predecessor Boris Johnson has the words pinned up over his desk, however unlikely that might be.
But if we – charitably – assume Johnson does want to be a good former prime minister, what does that really mean? Is it simply, as Baldwin suggested, a question of shutting up and staying out of the way? Or is there more to it than that?
Like a lot of jobs taken on by newly unemployed people in their 50s, ex-PM turns out to be a portfolio role: you can do several things at once
It is a question that matters because, as we saw at the late Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, we have a lot of former PMs floating about. That’s partly a result of the Conservatives’ recent practice of replacing them every three years, but it also reflects the way people have started doing the job younger than they used to. Tony Blair (in office from 1997 to 2007) still isn’t 70. David Cameron (2010-16) is a mere 55. Even the oldest of our current crop, John Major (1990-97), is up for a fight at 79.
The answer to the question of what makes a good ex-PM depends partly on where you sit. When Johnson was PM, the interventions of Theresa May (2016-19) were probably appreciated more in the Press Gallery than they were on the front bench.
Of course, like a lot of jobs taken on by newly unemployed people in their 50s, ex-PM turns out to be a portfolio role: you can do several things at once. So, here are the main options available to the newest addition to their ranks.
The incredible sulk
Perfected by Ted Heath (1970-74), who holds the all-comers record for Refusing To Move On, this is more of a state of mind than a job. It typically involves displaying epic resentment of your successors and offering barely coded criticism at every opportunity. Fitness for this role depends a great deal on how you lost office. Few prime ministers leave the job at a time wholly of their own choosing, and all of them believe the people removing them have made a mistake, but according to Lord Norton of Louth, the Conservative peer and academic, some departures hurt more than others. “If you’ve lost an election, that’s the electors’ fault, you accept that,” he said. “Whereas if you’re ousted by your own party, then there might be that resentment that Heath clearly had, and, to some extent, Margaret Thatcher [1979-90] as well.”
They disappear for years at a time, and then return in their country’s hour of need to utter words so wise that no one can ignore them. During the decade after John Major left office, he seemed to disappear completely, only popping up when it was helpful to his successors. But a question that party grandees face is what they’re being loyal to: the party’s current leadership, or its ideals? When Johnson intervened to try to save Owen Paterson last year, Major found he’d reached his limit. “I’m angry and disappointed,” he told the BBC, denouncing the government. Harold Wilson (1964-70, 74-76) faced a similar dilemma as the party moved to the left in the early 1980s, according to Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds, who has just published a biography. “Between 1976 and 1979, I don’t think there was any tension between loyalty to the country, loyalty to the party and loyalty to his successor,” he said. “Post-1979, it became very different.”
You’re well-known, you have contacts, you understand how government works. Why not make money? Cameron’s problems last year with Greensill Capital provide part of the answer to that. Blair’s business interests, meanwhile, have helped to keep several journalists busy for years. Author Giles Edwards says money-making can undermine work a former leader is trying to do in other areas. “The more you make, the more your influence is reduced,” he said. “The negative coverage is damaging to the brand.” So long as you can bear to scrape by on a few hundred thousand a year, the safest thing to do is make speeches. The amount ex-leaders make from their speeches is generally not revealed, but May’s range between £50,000 and £127,000 each.
You’re well-known, you have contacts, you understand how government works. Why not help people? Brown is the United Nations envoy for education. Cameron is president of Alzheimer’s Research UK. For Giles Edwards, whose book The Ex-Men looks at the retirement careers of global leaders, the great example is former United States president Jimmy Carter (1976-80). “There wasn’t election monitoring as we know it today before Carter,” he said. “And – because of his unique access to business, health and political leaders – no one will be able to persuade me that anyone else could have achieved what he did on guinea worm.” There were an estimated 3.5 million global cases of the parasitic infection in 1986, when Carter made it his priority. Last year, just 15 cases were recorded.
When you stop being PM, you do of course still have a job. But of recent leaders only May has thrown herself back into the role of MP – she’s the first ex-PM since Wilson to choose to stay in the Commons in the election after leaving No 10. It’s not straightforward, though, to go back to your old life. Academics Alia Middleton and Louise Thompson are studying the parliamentary careers of ex-PMs. One finding is that the kinds of people who become PM tend not to have much experience as ordinary backbenchers. “They were all given shadow roles really quickly,” Thompson said. “So they don’t really know what they’re doing on the backbenches, and they find they’ve forgotten the procedure.” On top of that, while it’s easy to get called to intervene on weighty matters, “if they ask a difficult question about policy, the answer tends to be about their own record as prime minister.” No PM since Thatcher has gone to the Lords, but Norton thought May could follow her. “She’s very well-regarded in the Lords,” he said, “so she’d be very welcome.”
One of the films of the late Queen Elizabeth II revived after her death showed her chatting to Heath about his 1990 trip to Iraq to secure the release of British hostages. “You’re expendable!” she joked with him. But it was a real point. As a former PM, Heath could get through the door. But the country could also stand to lose him.
If none of these traditional roles appeal to Johnson, there are two more that might catch his eye.
The single oddest entry into the list of ex-PM jobs was made by Wilson, who in 1979 become one of the hosts of a new TV show, Friday Night, Saturday Morning. He struggled with the mechanics of live television and the autocue, and was asked to do only two episodes. The show’s amazing title sequence, which featured a couple interrupting sex to watch Wilson, has to be seen to be believed: https://tinyurl.com/wilson-show
Could he… come back? Kevin Theakston, professor of British government at Leeds University, points out that returning to No 10 has become far less common. “There are nine prime ministers in the 19th century who had two or more consecutive terms,” he said. “But only four in the 20th, and none since Wilson. The assumption since then is that when you’re finished, you’re finished for good.” Johnson-watchers, though, learned long ago to rule nothing out.
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