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When she stood up to speak in the emergency debate on Afghanistan, the congregations became silent. With a killer’s precision, Theresa May fired several rounds with her successor, Boris Johnson. “Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? she asks about the UK’s response to the Taliban. “Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate?”
May, whose term of office 2016-1919 in Downing Street achieved little content, discovered new fame by returning to the back benches. Or on cut to foreign aid, the roll from the national security adviser, or predominant the Brexit trade agreement, her interventions resonated.
May is the only former British prime minister still in parliament. The other four – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – left the political stage and rejected an ordinary bench in the House of Lords. Instead, they lead a healthy life in the private sector.
In recent decades, former prime ministers have delighted in the role of older statesmen in the legislature. Labor’s James Callaghan has been a Member of Parliament for almost a decade after losing the 1979 election. Ted Heath only left parliament almost three decades after voters rejected him in 1974.
The honorable reason for leaving the Commons after leaving number 10 is to avoid undermining the successor. After Margaret Thatcher was brutally fired, she was criticized because he acted as back manager at the big government. When Cameron left in 2016, his audience was argument was to prevent it from being a distraction for May.
But most former prime ministers really leave money. Few people enjoy returning to normal life after enjoying the gilded existence of drivers and private jets in Downing Street. Even May, who is not known for her orators, has Earn £ 1 million on the speaker circle since she left number 10. As a Member of Parliament, she has to declare it, unlike the other former Prime Minister.
An overzealous embrace of the private sector could backfire. After leaving parliament in 2007, Blair founded Tony Blair Associates. But she decides to go into high-paying consulting work – sometimes with dubious customers – his point of view affected. He finally understood it; the firm his doors closed in 2016 and he founded the Tony Blair Institute. The brainstorm provided valuable research during the pandemic. Blair correctly advised prioritize first doses of Covid vaccines and many agree with his views on the need for vaccine passports.
Yet Blair is hungry for the Commons. His allies say he would ‘like’ to return to leading politics, but for the harsh reality of standing for parliament. One says, “If Tony had found a way to stay in the Commons, the past decade of Labor and national politics would have looked very different.”
A solution might be to formally acknowledge the value of former prime minister to the House of Commons by making them honorary members, perhaps as apolitical MPs, like the speaker. Or they could be offered an extra scholarship to stay on as full-fledged MPs. The state is already funding administrative offices for former leaders, but it could go further. The payment of elected committee chairmen has led to a much better accountability of the ministers, so why not the same with former leaders?
Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute of Government’s brainstorming, argues that the UK should follow other countries, such as the US, that make better provision for their former leaders. ‘These people have such experience and gravity that you as a country do not want to lose it, that they have to hurry to make money in the private sector.
She agrees that a special role is analogous to the former ministers who chaired selected committees. “Having someone in government makes their job more purposeful and useful because they have had the experience of running a government department and the choices you have to make.”
It’s easy to imagine how much richer the debate on Brexit would have been if Blair, Brown and Cameron had been present on the green benches. The dilemmas facing the country now – coronavirus, local inequalities and climate change – are no less serious and British politics lacks leaders with wisdom and expertise. Our former PMs have both.