Let’s fast-forward a month. The campaign is over, the votes have been counted, and a victor declared (or a long and messy process of negotiations begun). What it likely means for someone, though, is that they’re out of a job. They’re either an ex-Prime Minister or a soon to be ex-party leader (possibly both).
Up until quite recently it was perfectly possible to lose multiple elections and retain your position as leader of your party. Today’s contenders don’t have that luxury; to quote the old axiom, ‘there is no second prize in politics’. There are however still things to do, legacies to secure, and a living to be made. Getting the boot from the electorate does not stop bills from the taxman. Added to this is the fact that you’re now likely to be an ex-leader for longer than ever before. To put it bluntly, Gladstone was 85 when he left office, Churchill was 80. Now thanks to medical technology and our societies obsession with youth, ex-leaders have to find a way to fill the next 30-40 years.
The traditional task for people leaving high office is writing their memoirs. The problem with this is that it isn’t as lucrative as it once was unless you’re prepared to dish the dirt; and doing that can actively harm your reputation. Most ex-leaders save this particular pleasure for a few years down the line, when they write a second more candid version of events.
There is also the issue of earning a living. Unlike some countries, the British Prime Ministership is not well paid (although the pension is very good). Often the most financially rewarding, but least dignified option, is the lecture circuit. In return for fabulous sums of money you’ll be introduced to indifferent crowds, in all sorts of far-flung corners of the globe, to regale them with your accumulated wisdom. While well paid, this can often be somewhat demeaning. At least one ex-Prime Minister commented that it made them feel like he was doing a circus turn. They’re sometimes forced to stand for endless photos and potentially even sign autographs. Luckily, being a professional campaigner for several years will have prepared them for this. A better outcome is securing a variety of consultancies and directorships where you’ll be invited to work half a day a month in return for your old body weight in gold.
Depending on how long you had the job, and to a lesser extent the circumstances of you leaving it, it is still possible to continue in politics in some capacity. Iain Duncan Smith didn’t even get to fight an election, and instead had to suffer the indignity of being removed by his own party. However, he bounced back to become Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He’s now held this job for longer than he was party leader. Former Conservative leaders Alec Douglas-Home and William Hague both became well respected Foreign Secretaries. Another way to continue in politics is what is often referred to as being kicked upstairs to the House of Lords. However this is often seen as a fate worse than death for any respected politico. Tony Benn called it ‘the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians’.
If you’re reluctant to leave the limelight, a career in the media is possible. Harold Wilson famously tried his hand as a talk show host which worked out about as well as you might expect. For any one brave enough to take a look, the results can be viewed online. For those willing to dare the bear pit there is always the opportunity to guest present ‘Have I Got News for You’. William Hague did this and it did wonders for his reputation. The British love a politician who can laugh at themselves.
The one thing all former leaders who step down as MPs should try to do is to avoid domestic and party politics at all costs (or at least for the next decade or so). Anything you might say or do in this arena will usually be seen as either an attempt at backseat driving (Thatcher tried this), or subtle to not–so-subtle digs at the person who replaced you (Tony Blair has persistently suffered from this). At best you might be seen as disloyal and divisive, at worst it actively hurts your legacy as you look bitter.
Often the most any ex-leader can hope for is to endure. All things become respectable once enough time and water under the bridge have passed. John Major left office generally perceived as being one of the worst Prime Ministers in living memory; but now comments on any number of subjects with the gravitas and dignity that being an elder statesman confers. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who hated him at the time but now regard him as a wise old man. Whoever isn’t the winner of next weeks election might do well to follow his example.
Dr Matthew Ashton
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University