News & Insights  |  Posted September 7, 2022

Bye bye Boris…or is it? How hard is it for former Prime Ministers to let go?

As Boris Johnson departs No.10 for the last time, 56° North intern Eddie Nicholls ponders whether he is really gone from politics for good and how hard it is for some former leaders to avoid becoming a back seat driver.

The summer of 2022 saw a new politician in the spotlight, one who was untainted by the Westminster establishment dogma, one who will save us all by bringing us the fruits from the flood of the Nile. His name – Gordon Brown.

Of course, it was only 12 years ago when Brown was firmly part of the Westminster establishment, leaving No.10 after a General Election defeat with approval ratings deep in the negative. But this summer has seen a new renaissance for the former PM.

First, he criticised the plan for the outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “pack” the House of Lords with up to 50 Conservative peers and while current Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was on holiday. Then Brown took the initiative to tackle the energy crisis calling for the price cap rise to be suspended, windfall taxes on energy companies to be extended, and the possibility of nationalising failing energy companies.

Brown’s interventions represent the latest in his periodic forays into seeking to influence current affairs but how effective are the words of a former Prime Minster and how else should they use their “retirement”? These questions will be especially pertinent for Johnson, who departed Downing Street on Monday and got his own room in the No.10 “retirement home”.

There is a history of former PMs attempting to set the agenda or giving their views on current affairs. After his retirement, Clement Atlee established the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and Anthony Eden made front page news when he commented on the firing of Selwyn Lloyd from his job as Chancellor.

However, Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill refrained from even speaking in the Commons after his premiership ended, and would not publicly attack his successor, preferring to silently seethe in letters to his wife on the Suez Crisis. For Johnson it seems this will not be his style; if there is one thing he can be counted on, it is not to be silent.

Most former leaders choose to remain in the Commons. Theresa May remains in Parliament currently. Edward Heath, after being removed from the leadership by Margaret Thatcher in 1975 remained an MP, and Thatcher critic, for another 26 years. His speech at the 1981 Conservative conference took aim at Government policy while he stood in front of “that woman” as he called her. While Heath was applauded in the conference hall, he wasn’t as successful in forcing a change in direction from the Thatcher government, demonstrating that former leaders can only be successful in influencing their party when their successors are ideologically similar.

While Heath raged, Mrs Thatcher remained a titan of the Conservative party and her words continued to matter long after she left. It was her endorsement which enabled Iain Duncan Smith to win the Conservative leadership in 2001 and despite her death in 2013, her name has been constantly invoked by the candidates of this summer’s Tory leadership contest.

Tony Blair on the other hand has been less successful in influencing the Labour party after he stood down as leader. Blair has had to watch as the party he once dominated diverted further and further from his shiny New Labour vision. While Blair offers opinions on current events, he did not endorse a candidate in the last Labour leadership election as he did not want to affect their chances with the membership. Johnson though, with his high approval ratings among Tory members, and the lack of ideological difference with his successor, is likely to remain an influential voice.

Modern Prime Ministers are also able to use their position for more lucrative ends, in the world of political consultancy, lecturing and after dinner speaking. Mrs Thatcher took a role as a “geopolitical consultant” at Philip Morris for £250,000 a year. Her successor John Major, who lost in a landslide in 1997, was appointed as an advisor to firms Credit Suisse, AECOM and the National Bank of Kuwait despite that humiliation. Johnson, who once called a £200,000 annual salary for a weekly column “chicken feed”, could very well be paid even  more to give his unfettered opinions and with his unique charisma and political capital there will be no shortage of offers.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out a political comeback. Churchill had non-consecutive terms as Prime Minister so why can’t Johnson? Former Tory Cabinet minister and king of the centrist dads Rory Stewart says that Johnson is biding his time to make his return comparing him to Silvio Berlusconi who has served as Prime Minster of Italy three times. While Johnson has considerable support within the membership, the bridges he burnt during his unceremonious removal from office may make even getting to that stage a challenge.

Johnson has said that “time will tell” on what he will do after his time as PM and on the steps of No10 said ‘this is it” as he left. Perhaps he’ll return to TV quiz shows or finish his book on Shakespeare. Maybe his reputation will see a revival like Gordon Brown, and he’ll become an elder statesman. Whatever Boris does, it will undoubtedly create headlines and maybe that alone will be enough for him to enjoy a happy retirement from centre stage of politics.

Eddie Nicholls, Intern