Losing political office: what next for the Prime Minister?

com.google.Chrome.wa6yx7 (1)Theresa May has formally resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party after almost three years as Prime Minister, a decision that will bring to an end a nine-year period of ministerial office. Before she formally leaves her post, Jane Roberts discusses how losing political office impacts on a person, and what the outgoing Prime Minister might do next.

The experience of losing political office

Spare a thought for Theresa May just now, consigned to an unkind history, yet still required to fulfil her official duties as Prime Minister whilst the jockeying amongst her potential successors takes place in the full glare of the media.

Of course, the transition from the highest political office in the land is never easy. Whatever the accomplishments in prime ministerial office, the end when it comes is almost inevitably a fall from grace. As John Keane has said, democracies specialize in bringing leaders down to earth. Harold Wilson is probably the only exception in the UK to this in recent times. Internationally, the former New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key was, in 2016, one of the very few heads of government to step down at a time of his own choosing, when he still remained popular and likely to win a fourth term in office. Few leaders, Key said, know when it is time to go and he was determined not to be one of them. Rather, he wanted to go whilst at the top and make way for new talent, echoing Thomas Jefferson in 1811 when he wrote that there is ‘a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance.

Tony Blair was able – albeit under considerable pressure from his successor – to plan his own departure, but after a decade at Number 10, cocooned from the everyday realities of life, he had reportedly no idea even of how to book his own travel. But it is not just the practicalities of life that former prime ministers have to adjust to. Far more challenging is the psychological transition from no longer holding sway in office, in charge of the domestic agenda and with considerable influence internationally, hobnobbing with leaders across the globe. One moment, your every word and nuance are the subject of constant, intense interest and scrutiny; the next, you are a political has-been, no-one noticing, much less caring what you think. Simply, you no longer matter; people have already moved on to your possible successor. The long, patient moving up the political greasy pole that may well have involved considerable personal sacrifice comes to a likely sudden, hasty and inglorious end. In democratic terms, political exit is both inevitable and desirable but on a personal level for any prime minister – indeed for most elected politicians – it is a very significant loss. And it hurts badly, even if there is some relief in the mix too.

Yet, public and academic debate tends not to dwell on the experience of politicians leaving office – except perhaps for a brief, almost salacious focus on visible tears. My research, which involved in-depth interviews with former MPs (including former cabinet members but not former PMs) and council leaders, demonstrates that the experience of losing political office is more complicated for individuals and for their partners than many predict. This may be the case both for those former politicians who have been defeated and for those who have stood down, albeit with varying degrees of voluntariness.

Powerful but widely unacknowledged feelings – including shame, humiliation, resentment and guilt – can accompany political exit. A sense of grief is commonly experienced, including by some who choose to stand down entirely of their own volition. This is hardly surprising when elected politicians’ roles are hugely time consuming and bring purpose, structure, status, social networks, influence, attention and income to those in office. For the majority of politicians, deeply held, cherished values are at the heart of what they do. Losing all of this, perhaps very suddenly, leaves most with at the very least a sense of dislocation. A minority may become depressed. Not unexpectedly, politicians for whom meaning, purpose and identity are exclusively tied up with their political role are especially likely to find the transition from office difficult. This is true also for those who come under external pressure to stand down or themselves feel ambivalent about not standing again.

To add insult to injury, there may be little in the way of any acknowledgement of their contribution in office, especially when a politician has been defeated. Contrary to public perception, many former MPs struggle to find employment and nor are their skills and experience always made use of either by political parties or wider civic society. In the absence of a new role, it is harder for former politicians to develop a narrative about who they now are and what they do; a key task once they leave office. Little recognised maybe but the impact of leaving political office often affects not just politicians as individuals but their partners and the wider family too. Furthermore, I have argued that with exit from political office being more problematic than is necessary, there are wider implications for our representative democracy.

Hard as it may be for any politician to leave office, it is harder still for heads of government where the buck really does stop, deprived as they immediately are of what Manfred Kets de Vries has called the essential nutrientsof power. Non-human primates are little different in this respect: Frans De Waal has vividly described the bewildered, depressed reaction over weeks of one male chimpanzee who lost the top spot in his social grouping.

It is a more complicated adjustment still for Theresa May: in prime ministerial office since the fateful general election of 2017, but inexorably losing power as the impasse over Brexit became ever more entrenched. She entered Number 10 in unenviable circumstances, having to deal with the aftermath of an unexpected vote to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum and David Cameron’s immediate resignation. Nevertheless, on the steps of Downing Street she expressed an ambitious domestic agenda, including a determination to deal with ‘the burning injustices’ in the country. Unlike most of her predecessors, three years later she can point to little she has achieved. Not only did she suffer the ignominious but unnecessary fate of losing her majority in parliament in 2017, she has presided over a stalled domestic programme and most notably, a humiliating failure to make progress on the defining issue of our generation, Brexit and our future relationship with the European Union.

Although May formally resigned from her position as party leader, there was little voluntariness in her departure. She left sooner than she had intended and only after months of restlessness in her Conservative Party, which included a confidence vote within her own party in December 2018. Pressure on her had intensified as her Withdrawal Agreement with the EU27 was repeatedly voted down in parliament.

Far from leading a ‘one nation government’ as intended, she leaves instead an increasingly angry, frustrated and polarised country. While other prime ministers might have been able to take some comfort in their legacy, May has little such refuge despite an artfully crafted resignation speech. Mounting criticism, edging towards contempt, at home and abroad, much of it alluding to shortcomings in her personal attributes is a bitter pill to swallow. The satirical epithet, ‘Maybot’, has gained wide recognition. Given Theresa May’s aspirations when she entered Number 10, the loss not just of her prime ministerial office but the loss of what might have been, an envisaged future, may be especially poignant for her.

What happens after losing office?

Aside from Theresa May’s possibly turbulent experience of leaving office, what will she go on to do? At 62 years of age (close to the average age of 63 at which post-war British prime ministers have left office), she is not old, but is said to have little of Denis Healey’s ‘hinterland’. Having reportedly sought the highest political prize from an early age, she has served in elected office since 1986 (as a councillor until she was successful at her third attempt to gain a parliamentary seat in 1997). May is said to feel most comfortable in her Maidenhead constituency and has already confirmed her intention to stay on as a backbench MP. How long she will do so is unclear. Harold Wilson was unusual by modern standards in standing again in his Huyton constituency at the 1979 general election following his resignation in 1976. If Theresa May does remain active in parliament, it will be a challenge for her to make the transition to life as a backbencher, both for her colleagues who may have plotted against her and for her successor, as she watches warily from the wings. In this respect, former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who remained an MP for more than two decades after losing office, becoming Father of the House, is an unappealing model.

Kevin Theakston and Jouke de Vries have suggested that success or failure of heads of government in modern Western-style democracies does not predict what comes afterwards. Some former leaders – President Jimmy Carter, for example – have considerably enhanced their reputation subsequently. There are now more plentiful opportunities on the international stage for former government leaders, although Brussels is an unlikely destination for May – even if the UK were not set to leave the EU – and her personal style is unlikely to endear her to a diplomatic or negotiating role. But she has long and useful experience gained in the Home Office that may offer opportunities on a wider stage, as well as some solace. Crucially, a role of this sort could offer Theresa May a different narrative when she comes later to reflect on her political career as a whole.

In his autobiography, Sir John Major wrote with equanimity and insight, ‘Senior politicians spend only a limited time in the sun, and I did not want to leave the front line of politics as a husk, bereft of everything but a backward glance to memories of my political noontide.’ Sir John has significantly enhanced his reputation in the last 20 or so years, and is now considered by many as an elder statesman – warm, witty and wise. Theresa May might do well to seek his advice.

About the author

Jane Roberts is Research Fellow in Public Leadership at The Open University Business School and the author of Losing Political Office.