Soon Theresa May will slink out of 10 Downing Street as undeniably the most catastrophic prime minister since her immediate predecessor, and will join a rather crowded out-tray.
With John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron all still in various states of repair, there will be five living former First Lords of the Treasury knocking around, a number that has never been exceeded (though often equalled, most recently in the early 1990s). Since there is every chance that another prime ministerial P45 will be drawn up sooner rather than later, the supply of ex-premiers could before long be an unprecedented glut.
But what is one to do as a former prime minister? Boris Johnson (or Jeremy Hunt) will be only the 55th individual to hold the office. Only seven of May’s predecessors departed the role in a coffin (Lord Palmerston and Pitt the Younger among them). Four others died within a few months, but that leaves plenty who have had to find something useful to do after slipping down the greasy pole they had previously climbed.
It used to be, of course, that you could come back for another crack. Seventeen PMs have had more than one spell in office but virtually all of them before the 20th century (including the third Duke of Portland, who had twenty-six years between his two tenures and died twenty-six days after his second ended). Only Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson have managed a comeback since the Second World War, but even if David Cameron really dreams of a return, it seems to be almost a given now that once you lose a general election, you quit a party leadership and quit quickly – or, in the current case, if you don’t win by as much as expected, quit after a decent interval.
As a defeated leader of the opposition, a second chance might be allowed, either in a more junior role like William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith, or just carrying on if your loss wasn’t as humiliating as expected, which seems to be working out just dandy for the Labour Party. But as a former prime minister, it seems unlikely such an opportunity would now be afforded even if desired.
Similarly fourteen ex-premiers (over a quarter) served as ministers under their successors, although none since Alec Douglas-Home was foreign secretary in Edward Heath’s administration. Others also, like Heath himself, continued to stand as an MP in future elections. Indeed, Ted occupied a front bench, if not the Front Bench, in grumbling distance of his successors as Conservative leader for seventeen years after ceasing to be PM, longer than he was ever part of, let alone chairing, the Cabinet. But Tony Blair didn’t hang around in Parliament, and Cameron also swapped his seat in the House for a writing desk in a shed relatively quickly.
Heath, of course, set himself up as a caustic commentator on those that came after him from his own party, and it didn’t take long for some of the principal targets to follow his example. John Major’s announcement that he was prepared to ask for a judicial review to block a no-deal-enabling prorogation of Parliament (a combination of words that lives and breathes 2019) seems to suggest that an ex-First Lord’s role is now not so much that of an elder statesman as that of a sacked football manager sitting in the Sky Sports studio unloading on those filling his former dug-out.
This is a relatively new development. Certainly those former First Lords who joined a successor’s ministerial team would have made surprising sources of public vitriol against the incumbent.
The new readiness to mouth off may have something to do with the speed at which recent prime ministers have bowed out from what seems now to be called frontline politics. They are more likely to step down as an MP, but they have also opted out of a virtually assured seat in the House of Lords. From the start of the twentieth century (when First Lords of the Treasury ceased to be, more often than not, actual Lords) through to Margaret Thatcher’s tenure, only Churchill and Heath lived more than a year after leaving the Commons before becoming a peer – but none of Major, Blair, Brown or Cameron has been ennobled, presumably through choice.
If nothing else, that removes them from any form of party whip (even if that is often applied lightly to elder statespeople), and sniping at those that have come after them on their own side is likely to garner continued media attention in a way that, say, Gordon Brown being unimpressed by a Conservative government would not. But is there more to it than that?
Age might be a factor. As a mean average, prime ministers have been sixty-one upon stepping down, and have lived on for twelve years. Yet May is the first premier to have been in office in her sixties since Thatcher – the four PMs between the two women all left the role before their seventh decade, the longest such run since the early nineteenth century.
Back then, there was a streak of seven, including three that died in office – William Pitt the Younger, Spencer Perceval and George Canning – and another (Lord Liverpool) who resigned due to illness and did not live long thereafter. All but one of the rest returned to the Cabinet in other roles. Yet Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron have opted to keep breathing but not, in ministerial terms, serving, such that Heath’s modern record of more than thirty-one years as an ex-prime minister has every chance of being broken (perhaps as soon as late 2030, if Major makes it to his late eighties).
This has left those individuals looking for something to do. Company directorships and the lecture circuit might allow then to supplement their government pension, but it is hard to think that anyone with the drive and ambition to make it to Number 10 would truly wish to fade into the political background, assuming they do not succumb to long-term ill health like Harold Wilson.
Even an individual who did largely opt for a quiet life like Anthony Eden could not resist speaking out about the Long-Knifed sacking of Selwyn Lloyd, and the current unlikeliness of a comeback previous ex-prime ministers could aspire to might encourage far more such looseness of tongue (and action, in Major’s case).
Maybe there are also more incentives than in the past. Supplementing that pension being one of them – before David Lloyd George in the 1930s, a lucrative contract for a memoir was unheard of (admittedly, so were stipends for ex-PMs). The Goat (and in some people’s reckoning, the GOAT) was still an MP, though a marginalised one even among the ailing Liberal Party, when he wrote his War Memoirs and was keen to vindicate his role during the Great War. It also allowed him to dish on (non-party) successors, notably Ramsay MacDonald, whose national government Lloyd George had refused to join, and of which he was very critical until asked to tone it down by King George V. The memoirs sold handsomely.
Since Churchill (a writer of history in which he figured large rather than of autobiography), only Douglas-Home has declined the task of choosing a The Course of My Life-style pompous title for their memoir (or, if you are John Major, John Major: The Autobiography, even if that turned out more to be a kiss and tell). ‘It was never going to work,’ sniffs Tony Blair of Gordon Brown, in an unsurprising but typical passage.
But this isn’t hack-work, churning out lucrative opinions. Blair (although his book royalties were donated to charity) and Heath hardly needed financial incentives to question those who took over their party leaderships. I suspect the tendency for prime ministers to return to the political fray in a way that predecessors tended not to do – aside from the odd aside about selling off the family silver – is not fiscal but psychological.
The fact that PMs are stepping down at younger ages, well before the norm for retirement, coupled with a more relentless than ever media hungry for conflict, means that a quiet slipping into the shadows would be rather difficult – even if the job didn’t attract those who, almost by definition, seek the limelight.
Added to this is the phenomenon of party leaders being selected, like England football managers, for their very difference to whoever is handing over the conch. So confident and flash public schoolboy Cameron gives way to May, who is none of those things, and she in turn gives way to someone who is all those things – just like exotic foreigner Sven-Göran Eriksson was replaced by Steve McClaren to be replaced by exotic foreigner Fabio Capello to be replaced by Roy Hodgson.
And while most England management reigns, like political careers, end in failure, that above quartet were able to get other jobs in football coaching. Prime ministers are unlikely to receive offers to take over the Russia job or get a lucrative contract to govern a Chinese region. And setting up your own think tank or trying really very hard to bring peace to the Middle East can’t stop one looking back at what almost by definition is the pinnacle of a British political career.
It’s not easy to get that job and if you lose it due to an election defeat or, if undefeated, you find your party turn on you, it’s inevitable to want not to be defined by that exit, the thing freshest in everybody’s mind. Especially if, like Tony Blair, you were dedicated to building the Labour Party into everything Jeremy Corbyn wishes to dismantle, or if, like John Major, you see the very people who made your premiership impossible take over the Conservatives.
Perhaps once, having reached retirement age, you could retreat to your estate, and accept a hereditary peerage if you did not already possess one. Even the modest Clement Attlee famously penned a poem in which his success in becoming PM was put alongside his becoming: ‘CH and OM/An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.’ He had a legislative legacy to be proud of, but if he hadn’t, the baubles would still have been a consolation. Former PMs now are generally younger, with different social aspirations, and live in a modern media landscape which would make obscurity more difficult to achieve than world fame, particularly in an era where presenting an image and the ability to self-promote are compulsory for success – could Attlee have risen to the top today regardless of ability?
This perhaps is why successive prime ministers, nearing their end, have become transfixed by their ‘legacy’, and have felt the need to spend at least part of their retirement in a continuing campaign on behalf of themselves, even though there are no more votes to win. And in many cases their efforts have paid off.
In the US, the likes of Jimmy Carter and both Georges Bush have found themselves becoming more fondly thought of as memories of their tenures’ unhappy endings have faded (and Carter has certainly not been afraid to make his views on later presidents known: the much-tweeted meme that Barack Obama is the first ex-POTUS to criticise a successor is nonsense). And while the greatest British prime ministerial successes of recent times – Thatcher and Blair – have not necessarily seen their electoral records reflected in their post-retirement popularity, I would suggest that Major and Callaghan especially found themselves more fondly thought of as elder than current statesmen. And already there seem to be the first pangs of sympathy for May before she has even handed over the keys to No 10.
Perhaps post-prime ministerial interventions from those who were clearly once masters of all they surveyed smack of bullying. Even if that was something Major and May were capable of (and Callaghan certainly was), their lower status in the public mind seems to give their musings more dignity. In those circumstances, why wouldn’t they take advantage of the open line to the media that is an unspoken part of their severance packages?
Fairly or unfairly, it would not be reported quite so sympathetically if Tony Blair, unlike John Major in 2013, was to come out with a statement like ‘Calling three of my colleagues, or a number of my colleagues “bastards” was absolutely unforgivable. My only excuse is that it was true.’ And who could blame the erstwhile ‘want’-mispronouncer for taking advantage of that leeway, not least as incumbents do not yet have that right?
Does Theresa May have the temperament to follow in Major’s footsteps and at least try to make herself thought of more fondly in retrospect? Perhaps joining Jeremy Corbyn in an I Couldn’t Have Done It Without You tour, showing off the mutual wit and uncanny chemistry that has wowed TV audiences in their weekly duels?
She might of course opt for a backbench life representing Maidenhead, giving the town something almost (but not quite) as remarkable as the oldest continuously used football stadium by a single club in the world. But how could someone able to rise to the commanding heights of British politics, albeit briefly and with those commands falling on increasingly deaf ears, not wish to resurrect their reputation in the eyes of history and, more pressingly, the present through implied or explicit disdain for the actions of the next prime minister? Especially when her emotional continence might just contrast well with what is to come.