24 July 2019

Life after Downing Street: What Prime Ministers do next

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As she exits the political stage pursued by a blond bear, Theresa May’s mind will inevitably turn to the question of ‘what next’?

As for the immediate future, she might follow John Major’s example. Hours after losing the top job in 1997, Major famously pottered down to the Oval to watch his beloved Surrey play cricket. It’s well known that May is a cricket fan – she’s spoken of drawing inspiration from the gnarled intransigence of her hero, batsman Geoffrey Boycott – perhaps she will hope for similar solace from Lords today, where England play Ireland in a Test match for the first time.

So much for this week, but what about beyond? If she pops into the restaurant of history, she’ll find a whole buffet of available options to choose from. Here are a few which might – or might not – be to her taste:

The Writer

It has become almost obligatory for ex-PMs to churn out a memoir vindicating their achievements, eviscerating their opponents and musing on what might – or perhaps should – have been.

But past PMs have turned their hand to other – more adventurous, idiosyncratic – genres.  Edward Heath published books on sailing, travel and music, Churchill completed his monumental History of the Second World War, and William Gladstone published a treatise on book storage and a work of theology.

Perhaps a better guide is Benjamin Disraeli, who returned to his former calling as a novelist, publishing Endymion in 1880, for which he received a £10,000 advance (about £660,000 in today’s money) – the largest amount for a work of fiction that century, outranking Charles Dickens and George Eliot.

After countless hours debating unicorn versions of Brexit, Theresa May might feel she too is well qualified to write a work of fantasy.

Another inspiration might be the famously aloof Arthur Balfour. Urbane, cerebral, devastatingly witty, Balfour was easily bored by the everyday dirge of administration and party management. Liberated from office he set his mind to higher matters, publishing a significant work of philosophy – Theism and Humanism – in 1915. This would go on to be cited throughout the century as laying the groundwork for what became known as “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, securing Balfour’s name in the history of philosophy.

Perhaps after her apprenticeship dealing with politically impossible conundrums, Theresa May might turn her mind to philosophical ones instead? They can’t be much harder than what she’s already had to deal with.

The Backbencher

Being an ex-PM in Parliament is often a tricky affair – stripped of the vestiges of power you once enjoyed, your ability to dictate policy is downgraded to ‘a chance to influence’ it instead. On top of that your every word is parsed for any slight or denigration of your successor, as was patently the case with Thatcher during the early years of Major’s premiership. It can be tough to adjust. Perhaps May’s years in office but without power will make the transition easier, but how long will she last?

While Tony Blair and David Cameron fled the scene almost as soon as they stepped out of Downing Street, the likes of Sir John Major and Gordon Brown stayed on as backbenchers to the end of their respective parliaments, while Thatcher resigned her seat in 1992, two years after being deposed by her party, in order to “speak more freely” on the issues of the day.

Edward Heath felt no such constraint. Having had the crown wrested from him by Thatcher in 1974, Heath returned to the backbenches and freely criticised his successor for years to come.  He would sit for another 27 years, long enough to survive the Conservative cull of 1997 and see out the first term of the Blair government.

Heath kept busy as an MP but made few – if any – historic interventions from the backbenches during those years. But another long-serving ex-PM, David Lloyd George, showed that things could be otherwise.  Leader during the First World War, Lloyd George remained an MP for 22 years after office, just long enough to make a dramatic contribution to the Second War. Aged 78 and Father of the House, Lloyd George leveraged the full weight of his experience in a surprise intervention during the Norway Debate of 7 May 1940. Rising unsteadily to his feet, Lloyd George proceeded to map out in painful detail the direness of the British position, building to a rhetorical climax where he declared that ‘there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that [Neville Chamberlain] should sacrifice the seals of office’. Some historians argue that the speech turned the course of the debate – and history – leading to the resignation of Chamberlain and the ascension of Lloyd George’s old friend and protégé, Winston Churchill.

The Political Lazarus

Neither Lloyd George nor Edward Heath returned to office during their long stints on the backbenches, but a number of ex-PMs have done just that – arguably to effect greater change than when they were in charge.

Arthur Balfour was PM between 1905-06, but far from ending his career there (and dedicating himself purely to philosophy), he played a crucial role in the First World War, returning to the cabinet in 1915 to succeed Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty under Asquith, before being promoted to Foreign Secretary in 1916 by Asquith’s successor, Lloyd George – a role he kept until the end of Versailles in 1919.

Returning from the backbenches is one thing, but what about returning from rejection at the ballot box altogether?

Balfour actually lost his seat in the Liberal landslide of 1906 before returning at a by-election that year, and if you thought Boris Johnson was the ultimate Teflon politician, take a look at Andrew Bonar Law (PM between 1922-23), who managed to lose his seat twice in separate general elections (1906 and 1910)  and yet came back both times, going on to become PM in 1922. His premiership, however, only lasted a few months…

MPs returning to Parliament after losing their seat didn’t used to be such a rarity. In Feb 1974, 20 MPs were returned who had previously lost their seat. By 2015 just three were returned.

The Chat Show Host

An unlikely one this. But it has been done once before.

Having resigned three years earlier, in 1979 Harold Wilson became the unlikely host of the popular chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Under the white heat of the studio lights, Wilson wilted – awkward pauses, wooden delivery and a total lack of personal chemistry, the experiment was ditched after two episodes. Probably not the best recommendation for a PM rarely accused of human warmth when in the public eye.

The Raconteur

Theresa May will not be remembered for her oratory. But then neither will Sir John Major and he is still a regular on the after-dinner circuit, where banks, consultancies and other organisations with seemingly more money than sense pay up to £25k a pop hear his post-prandial musings.

If you think that’s steep then Tony Blair’s antics look positively vertical. In 2009 he made a reported $616,000 for two half-hour speeches given in the Philippines, equating to over $10,000 a minute. Gordon Brown clocks in a little more cheaply, reportedly being paid a mere £75,000 to deliver a speech at a conference organised by the not-for-profit ANAP Foundation promoting good governance in Nigeria.

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The important point here is that you do not stop being a public figure when you leave the highest public office in the land. Your actions shape the perception of the office as a whole, as well as your own legacy.

Blair’s slavish devotion to enriching himself in the years after his premiership – earning a reported £60m less than 10 years after leaving office – reflect and harden the image of him as someone more focused on ‘champagne’ than ‘socialism’, and have provided ammunition for those tribalists in his own party to accuse him of “not being one of us”. It has also served to degrade the public’s perception of the office, adding succour to the conspiratorial mindset that sees politicians as being “only in it for the money”. And the less said the better about his (surely satirical) role as Peace Envoy to the Middle East – having helped invade Iraq only a few years earlier.

While Theresa May was Prime Minister for only three years, she will be an ex-Prime Minister for life. And the way she conducts herself over the ensuing years will help to both shape her personal legacy, and the wider perception of the office of Prime Minister. That remains a great responsibility; it is the one political duty she will never lose.

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Frank Lawton is Assistant Editor of CapX.