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When she rose to speak in the emergency debate on Afghanistan, the Commons fell silent. With an assassin’s precision, Theresa May fired several rounds at her successor, Boris Johnson. “Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak?” she asked of the UK’s response to the Taliban. “Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate?”
May, whose 2016-19 tenure in Downing Street achieved little of substance, has discovered newfound fame by returning to the backbenches. Whether on cuts to foreign aid, the role of the national security adviser, or overriding the Brexit trade deal, her interventions have resonated.
May is the only living former UK prime minister still in parliament. The other four — John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron — have left the political stage, declining a customary pew in the House of Lords. Instead they are making healthy livings in the private sector.
In recent decades, former PMs revelled in the role of elder statesmen in the legislature. Labour’s James Callaghan was an MP for almost a decade after he lost the 1979 election. Ted Heath did not exit parliament until almost three decades after the electorate rejected him in 1974.
The honourable reason for quitting the Commons after leaving Number 10 is to avoid undermining one’s successor. After Margaret Thatcher was brutally booted out of office, she was criticised for acting as a back seat driver to the Major government. When Cameron left in 2016, his public reasoning was to avoid being a distraction for May.
But most former PMs really leave for money. Having enjoyed the gilded Downing Street existence of chauffeurs and private jets, few embrace a return to normal life. Even May, not renowned for her oratory, has earned £1m on the speaking circuit since exiting Number 10. As an MP she must declare this, unlike the other ex-PMs.
An overly eager embrace of the private sector can backfire. After leaving parliament in 2007, Blair founded Tony Blair Associates. But his decision to go into highly paid consultancy work — sometimes with dubious clients — tarnished his standing. He eventually grasped this; the firm closed its doors in 2016 and he founded the Tony Blair Institute. The think-tank has produced valuable research during the pandemic. Blair correctly advised prioritising first doses of Covid vaccines and many agree with his views on the need for vaccine passports.
Yet Blair hankers for the Commons. His allies say he would “love” to return to frontline politics, but for the harsh reality of standing for parliament. One says: “If Tony had found a way to stay in the Commons, the last decade of Labour and national politics would have looked very different.”
A solution could be to formally acknowledge the value of ex-PMs to the Commons by making them honorary members, perhaps as apolitical MPs, like the Speaker. Or they could be offered an extra stipend to stay on as full MPs. The state already funds administrative offices for former leaders, but it could go further. Paying select committee chairs has resulted in much better accountability of ministers, so why not the same with former leaders?
Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government think-tank, argues that the UK should follow other countries, like the US, which provide better financial provision for their former leaders. “These people have such experience and gravitas that as a country you don’t want to lose that, that they have to rush off to make money in the private sector.”
She agrees that a special role is analogous to former ministers chairing select committees. “Having somebody who’s been in government makes their work more purposeful and useful because they’ve had that experience to run a government department and the choices you have to make.”
It’s easy to imagine how much richer the debate over Brexit would have been if Blair, Brown and Cameron had been present on the green benches. The dilemmas facing the country now — coronavirus, regional inequalities and climate change — are no less serious and British politics is sorely missing leaders with wisdom and expertise. Our ex-PMs have both.