Britain now has seven living former prime ministers. Two of them still Members of Parliament. Since Mrs Thatcher took the traditional peerage, none of her successors have become members of the House of Lords. Winston Churchill famously remained in the Commons turning down the title Duke of London, offered to him by King George VI, but then he was a notable “House of Commons man”. Only Ted Heath followed his example, until John Major. Heath preferred to remain an MP rumbling away with criticism of his successor and staying in the commons long after she had left office, the Commons and had gone to the Lords. Churchill and Heath were the exceptions rather than the rule. Now their examples have, for the time being, become the rule.
Following her ejection from No 10 Mrs Thatcher stayed an MP until the following General Election, as did Harold Wilson. Jim Callaghan, Wilson’s successor, even asked him to lead a review of the civil service. Gordon Brown followed their example. For reasons that were never clear both Tony Blair and David Cameron legged it from the Commons as soon as they could. Neither stayed around to help their successor. Now Theresa May, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson have all declared their intention to fight the next General Election. How Rishi Sunak’s heart must have sunk on receiving the news. Pope Francis has only one predecessor wondering around in his back garden. The Prime Minister has three of them to contend with.
As he departed Downing Street for the final time, on his way to the Oval to watch an afternoon’s cricket, John Major said, “when the curtain comes down it’s time to leave the stage.” With the exception of his stream of criticism of Boris Johnson and Brexit this is what he has, by and large, done. His example is the right one. The Premiership is the biggest political job in the country. Once you have had your chance – whether it’s weeks, months or years – you should move off centre stage with as much dignity and grace as you can muster. After all, a lot of people came together to put you there and have done their level best to support you. The only reason why you have been relieved of your office is because a lot of people, either in Parliament or across the country, have come together to remove you. Removing a prime minister is, rightly, very hard and if you’ve been removed you should take full note of the change of circumstance and respond accordingly. David Cameron of course left voluntarily, but given the circumstances he was probably correct in thinking his own ejection was only a matter of time.
Rishi Sunak has inherited a series of huge political and economic challenges. Many were years and decades in the making. The state of political schism between Scotland and England, for example, stems from Tony Blair enacting John Smith’s devolution plans. The Scottish Executive (as it was then called), Blair said, “would have no more powers than a large local council.” Political actions frequently have long-term consequences and Scottish and Welsh devolution have had consequences that threaten the very future of the nation itself. Chancellor Gordon Brown piled up national debt claiming, absurdly, he had abolished “boom and bust”. Having stoked up a huge boom the inevitable bust left the country financially incredibly vulnerable. It was left to George Osborne to clear up the mess. Having won a General Election David Cameron blew up his own government by calling and losing the EU referendum, with far reaching consequences that will haunt the country for decades to come. Most recently Liz Truss launched a budget which blew up the economy and the fallout out of which blew her out of No 10. When we stop and look back over the 25 years since 1997, a very short period of time in the life of any country, with the succession of massive political and economic ruptures we have experienced it is a remarkable tribute to the strength and resilience of our institutions and sense of ourselves as a people that we are still in one piece.
Gordon Brown’s political legacy was not only a great economic crash but the loss of Scotland and indeed his own Parliamentary seat as a natural source of support for Labour. Remarkable then that Labour has turned to him to lead and publish a policy review. Tony Blair, three time General Election winner for Labour is kept at arms length. Perhaps this is because he has not been slow in expressing his views on what Keir Starmer should and should not be doing. In any event he runs what is in effect a one person global policy shop. Rarely away from the headlines for very long. None of his successors have asked David Cameron to return to the front-line, and his post-Premiership has not been without its hiccups. Theresa May could not “get Brexit done” and Boris Johnson followed an extraordinary trajectory across the political sky.
All of them have contributed, not surprisingly, to the challenges and opportunities we now face. In their day they had their own challenges and opportunities, but today and tomorrow is now not their day. They have had their chances. Now it is for Rishi Sunak to play his part. Just recently both Johnson and Truss joined a Commons rebellion and forced the Prime Minister to reverse a key policy. Theresa May became a Parliamentary thorn in the side of Boris Johnson, much as Ted Heath did with Mrs Thatcher. It is one thing to have one or two living former prime ministers pottering about, giving the odd speech, providing an historical perspective. It is quite another having seven of them rampaging around inside and outside of Parliament. They all need to pack it in and resist the temptation to regularly make life difficult for their successors. We all need to focus on the future and not be constantly dragged back to the past.
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