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. Continue reading