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politics

What the Hell Is Theresa May Going to Do Next?

The psychological impact of exiting Number 10 can be brutal, but she might take some comfort from watching Boris Johnson crash and burn.

by Gavin Haynes
22 July 2019, 11:41am

Theresa May, then Home Secretary, speaks at the Conservative Party conference in 2014. Photo by Clickpics / Alamy Stock Photo 

As you sit and await the executioner, a numbness takes hold. Not long after her resignation speech, according to close friends, Theresa May could not withstand the well-meaning question of what plans she’d made for life after power. She’d fall silent and well up. “Those are very difficult conversations,” an adviser sighed to the Times. “She and her husband gave all of themselves to the Conservative Party and now she will be treated like a leper in some quarters, that’s very difficult to live with and to be reconciled with. It’s quite sad really. It’s almost like her family turning on her.”

It’s easy for us mortals to underestimate the psychological impact of leaving the apex of power. In that first golden moment, as the Downing Street door shuts behind you, newly-elected Prime Ministers are ushered into a briefing room, where they are given headed parchment, and told to hand-write a letter issuing instructions to the UK’s nuclear submarine commanders, on what to do in the event of the British Government’s total destruction.

That – as so many former incumbents have noted, is the moment when the gravity of what you have become really hits you. In a sense, you become Death, destroyer of worlds, and that sudden omnipotence, that sudden centrality of your individual psyche to Our Island Story is… well, basically what Renton said about heroin.

Once turfed back out of high office, blinking in the daylight, the tide of civil servants rushing at you with red boxes immediately trickles to nothingness. Instead, you’re put back to nothing but drab, tedious local constituency work – neighbourhood noise complaints and mis-paid benefits. It’s the full Icarus-tumble.

The speed of the fall can be jarring. Thatcher certainly never got over her sudden, sticky end. Harold Wilson was said to have been mortified at the moving men pulling up outside Downing Street hours after his shock 1970 election loss. When Wilson resigned out of the blue midway through his second term in 1976, many speculated that his suddenness was because he had become obsessed with being able to choose his own end date, rather than having one foisted upon him by events.

“Retired Prime Ministers always face a difficulty,” considers Vernon Bogdanor, Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King's College London, and one of the country’s most eminent constitutional experts. “Particularly as, since John Major's resignation in 1997, they are younger than they were, for example, in the 1950s. Churchill and Attlee were old men when they retired, and their political careers were clearly over. Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and now Theresa May left No 10 in mid-career.”

At 62, at least May is closer to retirement than either Blair or Cameron – the two youngest Prime Ministers in nearly 200 years who left office at 53 and 49 respectively.

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A newspaper front-page from the day Theresa May tearfully announced her resignation (ifeelstock / Alamy Stock Photo)

Before he recovered a slither of mojo as Mr Remain, Blair was little more than a haunted grandfather clock, who preferred consulting abroad to facing whispers about Iraq here. Cameron appears to be following Nick Clegg’s new paradigm for political afterlifes, having recently found a job on the board of an AI firm, perhaps in an informal acknowledgement that Big Tech is now more potent than Big Government.

Both Cameron and Blair wasted little time exiting Parliament – three months and one day respectively. Both may have had in mind Ted Heath. He lost the Tory leadership in 1975 and was portrayed ever-after in the press as “sulking on the backbenches” for opposing the policies of his successor, Margaret Thatcher.

Joey Jones used to be Sky News’ deputy political editor, before becoming May’s official spokesman in 2016. These days, he works in political consultancy for the PR firm Cicero. He points to David Cameron as a textbook case in how not to do it. “Cameron quitting his constituency in the aftermath of the referendum left a bit of a sour taste. Even though it was clearly going to be personally uncomfortable for him, if he’d put in some hard yards for a short time, it would have demonstrated something.”

Jones reckons May could take a different route. “Given that Theresa May has always had a very close relationship with her constituency, and in fact often preferred it to the job in Westminster, it would surprise me if she severed that link very quickly,” he says.

Cameron also showered his former advisers, political allies and courtiers with honours in his Resignation List, the political equivalent of nicking-off with the curtains at the end of your tenancy. “I hope she realises that a similar confetti-like indulgence would go down very badly, given that her premiership has not – set against what she herself would consider a yardstick – been a success.”

No wonder that in May’s final furlong, largely unnoticed next to the hullabaloo of the leadership contest, she has spent the past few weeks religiously issuing big new policy announcements. A “new deal on disabilities”. A carbon-neutrality target. A “police covenant” to match the “military covenant”.

Most recently, she revealed that taxpayers will soon be on the hook for a new quango: the Office For Tackling Injustices. Never mind that “tackling injustices” is supposed to be the job of pretty much every government department.

“Burning Injustices” has been May’s refrain in Downing Street. She deployed it in her first speech as PM, but so far, it has amounted to little more than some statistically-untutored Social Justice talking points: the race audit, the gender pay audit, a few price-capping adjustments to the consumer energy market.

For all the consultancy cash Blair has hoovered out of Kazakh oil regimes via his mysterious shell-companies, he has also fed an awful lot of it back into his own personal charity: the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. May would struggle to raise anything like Blair’s 2017 turnover of $34 million. But if she is in search of purpose, she might yet be able to spin-off those Burning Injustices into her own charity.

Joey Jones never saw the Burning Injustices as mere PR tinsel. “I witnessed her making her farewell speech, from the Home Office, with hundreds of staff lining the balconies. She talked powerfully about injustice, and you got the sense that her colleagues were invested in it… There was a big legislative project around modern slavery, some work on domestic violence, she was acknowledged by the Hillsborough Foundation as having been instrumental in getting their case heard, and she sought to roll back stop and search. There was a real thread to it at the Home Office – it’s just that she wasn’t able to then translate that into her premiership.” Of course, others would point to the Hostile Environment policy, and its nadir in Windrush, as evidence that some injustices are more burning than others.

The Brexit legacy might not be entirely a dead parrot either. Vernon Bogdanor suggests one more good reason for staying on in Parliament: to fight against any mutilation of her Withdrawal Agreement from the backbenches.

Anyone who saw Theresa May at Lord’s during the Cricket World Cup final, shaking a forearm, a bicep, and possibly even strategic parts of the upper-deltoid in loose time to "Sweet Caroline", might have finally glimpsed within her a sense of relief at impending freedom.

Or, perhaps, joy at impending schadenfreude for her successor. It is now Johnson who will be tasked with an in-tray of mutually non-intersecting red lines with the EU, a fragmenting Union, no Parliamentary majority, and zero prospect of achieving one without simultaneously inviting the Brexit Party to vaporise his power base.

After all, ‘I told you so’ might well be the most satisfying of all political legacies.

@gavhaynes