In his first, and now classic, novel, A Very British Coup
, Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP for Sunderland South, tells the story of Harry Perkins, the unlikeliest of Prime Ministers, who resigns the premiership after the Security Service threaten him with scandal. In the postscript, Mullin tells how Perkins 'remained in seclusion at Chequers' – the Prime Minister's Buckinghamshire country house, nestled at the foot of the Chiltern Hills – with long-lens photographers occasionally managing to 'get a shot of a lonely figure pottering around the rose garden'. After the sudden and traumatic end to his once hopeful premiership, Perkins appears a broken man who 'wandered the lobbies and the tea rooms' of the House of Commons and 'sat on the occasional committee, but contributed little'. His service to the nation was recognised only in the form of a 'little plaque on the council house where he and his mother had lived'.
Although a work of fiction, the plight of Harry Perkins points to the difficulty that most former Prime Ministers have in finding a role after they leave office. Without the ever-present demands on their time, thinking capacity and nervous energy, as well as the political status that comes with the premiership, former Prime Ministers can be left, in the words of Jeremy Paxman, as the 'corporeal expression of an entire, generally discarded, world view'.
Tony Benn, who spent nearly half a century in the House of Commons, frequently recalled his amazement at taking a party of schoolchildren round the House of Commons in March 1964, only to discover that not one of them had ever heard of either Clement Attlee or Anthony Eden. To do further damage to the collective ego of former premiers, only two of Benn's charges knew of Sir Winston Churchill, the old warrior who had twice occupied the premiership and was fast approaching his 90th birthday.
Despite this post-premiership oblivion, leaving Number 10 Downing Street certainly should not mark the end of a premier's political career. Despite once being a common occurrence, just one former Prime Minister has returned to Government in a successor's administration since 1945. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, then the MP for Kinross and Western Perthshire – whose 364-day premiership ended in October 1964 with the election of the first Labour Government in 13 years – was appointed Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary by Edward Heath in 1970.
Given his geniality and the shortness of his tenure behind the famous door in SW1, Home was relatively free of the political baggage that often accompanies longer serving Prime Ministers and provided his successors with dignified and loyal support. Whilst afflicted with a persistent belief that he himself was on the cusp of being swept back into office, Home's old boss, Harold Macmillan, once remarked that 'anyone who has played the main stage of theatre land shouldn't attempt to come back in provincial repertory'.
Whilst Alec Douglas-Home was the last former premier to tread the boards of high office again, as a result of Theresa May's decision to continue as the MP for Maidenhead, we now have a former Prime Minister inside the Palace of Westminster for the first time since May 2015. Whilst Gordon Brown represented Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for only a single five-year session after losing office, it marked the longest stay in Parliament of any former premier since Margaret Thatcher, who had sat in the House of Lords from 1992 until ill-health forced the closure of her office in the Lords in 2011. Her successor, Sir John Major, lasted four years until retiring at the 2001 election; Tony Blair famously resigned his Sedgefield seat on the very day he left Number 10; and David Cameron stuck around for just 61 days before throwing in the Portcullis-monogrammed towel.
For most, leaving office is an opportunity to 'put the record straight' by putting pen to paper, albeit with varying degrees of success. To sweeten the deal, in recent years most secured high-profile book deals with sizeable advances, to sustain them in their retirement years. Margaret Thatcher reportedly received over £3.5 million for her two volumes of autobiography, with Tony Blair's touching on almost £5 million just under two decades later.
In contrast to Clement Attlee's somewhat terse, As It Happened
, and Alec Douglas-Home's slim and anecdotal, The Way the Wind Blows
, recent years have seen former Prime Ministers churn out mammoth doorstoppers. Although none of the recent entries have surpassed the six volumes penned by Harold Macmillan over the course of a decade after leaving office, with 4,000 pages stretching from his youth in the trenches of the Western Front to his enforced retirement in October 1963. Some have followed the example of David Lloyd George and dabbled in the exclusive and pocket-lining international lecture circuit. At the time of writing, the Washington Speakers Bureau, the premier international agency that represents retired presidents and world leaders, has all five of Britain's former premiers on its books.
With such varied and potentially lucrative avenues open to them outside of politics, it is easy to understand, if not forgive, our former leaders for stepping away from Parliament and being more selective about when they try to intervene in Britain's public life. However, it now seems inconceivable that any former incumbent of Number 10 would follow Sir Edward Heath's example of remaining, however doggedly, in the House of Commons for 27 years after leaving Downing Street.
Over the last two months, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have made repeated interventions, both in print and on screen, seeking to guide our response to the coronavirus pandemic. In early April 2020, both men joined forces with Sir John Major, and nearly 90 other former world leaders, to urge G20 countries to assemble a more international response to the crisis. With a collective two decades of the premiership under their belts, the three concluded that it was essential that developed nations hasten the search for a vaccine and assemble an extensive emergency aid programme to help the poorest nations deal with the worst effects of the pandemic.
In a comment piece for The Times
on 5 May, Theresa May also lamented the lack of international cooperation between world leaders and forecast that the lack of a collective world view of what works best would exacerbate 'the shift towards nationalism and absolutism' which is 'emasculating' the international institutions that have guided world politics since 1945.
For Brown, who helped engineer the world's response to the global financial crash over a decade ago, the world's foremost priority in the months ahead must be mitigating the effects of a rapidly approaching recession. Whilst Brown recently claimed that he did not believe that former leaders should 'claim any special privileges or insights', he has been recruited by the Welsh Government to its new advisory group, intended to help shape Wales's transition to life after the pandemic.
As Alec Douglas-Home conceded, 'the office of Prime Minister is a solitary tenancy' and 'it is natural to choose someone of trust to be always on call and to ease the burden with advice and company'. Whilst Boris Johnson's Number 10 is not renowned for its humility, former Prime Ministers, who have shouldered the same burden of Government, have the potential to be an important source of sound advice and wise counsel to their successors.
In the United States in pre-Trump times, it has been common practice for those in the Oval Office to consult their predecessors on the major questions of their times. Despite some public antagonism between the two men, Bill Clinton regularly sought, and valued, Richard Nixon's advice on foreign affairs, consulting him about how best to deal with the former Soviet Union and 'Red' China in the early 1990s. Taking up office in May 1997, Tony Blair caused some animosity within the Labour Party with his decision to ask Margaret Thatcher, rather than his Labour predecessor Jim Callaghan, to be the first former premier to visit him at Number 10.
With the passage of time, mellower, rejuvenated, and less partisan, former premiers can lend their experiences to contemporary issues, spotting pitfalls and scouting paths to safety that are often missed in the daily rough and tumble of decision-making. If we wish to improve the quality of how we are governed, constitutional change, reforming the electoral system, and upgrading the quality of our leading politicians are all possible answers to our plight. However, another, perhaps infinitely simpler option, would be to dip into the well of wisdom and experience that five former Prime Ministers provide. It is noteworthy that, with the increasingly ceremonial nature of the Privy Council and the lack of a single former PM in the House of Lords, there is no institutional forum for the current occupant of Number 10 to involve his predecessors in decision-making.
For all of their faults and the reputational tarnish that comes with high office, former Prime Ministers are a fundamental component of the institutional memory of British Government. Along with the retired Cabinet Secretaries, senior mandarins and Chiefs of the Defence Staff who reside on the crossbenches of the House of Lords, former premiers who remain in Parliament can bring wisdom, knowledge, and experience to the heart of Britain's public life.