March of the ex-PMs

With the amendment-free Brexit Bill now assured of receiving the Royal Assent, there is now nothing to stop Theresa May’s imminent invocation of Article 50, at least in theory. Then the two-year-maximum process of extricating the UK from the various articles and clauses binding the state to the European Union will get underway, and the reality of Brexit will slowly transpire. The nature of that reality, however, and just what Brexit will ultimately mean (with Mrs May’s declaration that ‘Brexit means Brexit‘ being about as unhelpful is it’s possible to get), is obviously open to debate.

The Brexiteer-dominated government, headed as it is by someone who had been a Remainer at the time of last year’s referendum, appear to have ruled out a deal with the EU that would keep the UK in the Single Market or the Customs Union. Nonetheless, the Brexiteers are still insisting, that doesn’t mean that this country will in any way lose out in whatever deal is thrashed out over the next two years. It’s proving hazardous to argue with them: even if you do have the weight of evidence and expert opinion on your side, that doesn’t make you immune to abuse on social media, or being defamed as an “Enemy of the People” on the front pages of the tabloids. We are apparently stuck, after all, in an age of post-truth politics, in which things like facts and proof can be swatted aside in debates as if they were flies at a garden fete. What’s more, the Brexiteers have another weapon in their armoury: if (or so this ploy goes) those of us on the losing side in the referendum keep up our criticism of the way Brexit has been handled, we shall unwittingly undermine the Prime Minister’s position at the negotiating table, and our domestic divisions will embolden the other side in Brussels to play hardball with us. The problem with that idea is that the Other Side in Brussels have for years played hardball with everyone, regardless of how domestically united the negotiating country is (just ask any Turkish diplomat who has patiently tried to discuss conditions for Turkey’s entry into the EU for goodness-knows-how-long). Simply patronizing us critics with words to the effect of ‘Don’t rock the boat, dear boy’ is just a lazy way of ducking the debate, or possibly closing down the argument. (Whoops! Sorry – I should have known my place there, and being a Remainer I should have kept my facts and evidence to myself… I really must be more conscientious next time…)

Four former Prime Ministers and one former Deputy PM: (l-r) Brown, Blair, Major, Clegg, Cameron

Even if High Court judges and Gina Miller don’t succeed in encouraging the great and the good to behave more professionally about the Brexit process, there is one group of people who still might: the UK’s former prime ministers. Think about it: having once been the head of government of a country that’s heading into politically uncharted waters does give you considerable authority when entering any debate, as the Observer‘s brilliant political columnist Andrew Rawnsley explained toward the end of last year. In a column he wrote in November he expressed relief that Sir John Major and Tony Blair – who famously both spoke in Derry two weeks before the vote, urging the electorate to opt for Remain – were continuing to make their opinions known about how Brexit was being handled:

Unlike younger politicians shackled by their career calculations, neither man can be intimidated by the blowhards in the rightwing press or frozen into silence by one of Mrs May’s death stares. They both won elections, which is more than Mrs May can say for herself. Sir John won an election his party expected him to lose. Mr Blair did the hat trick and two of his victories were by landslides. Between them, they have a lot of experience of negotiating with foreign leaders, especially European ones. It might even repay Mrs May to seek some private advice from her predecessors.

You may or may not agree with what they have to say, but they can’t be denied the courtesy of a hearing. Two men who have more than 17 years of combined experience of leading Britain just might know what they are talking about.

Former prime ministers can certainly be assured of a hearing. Harold Macmillan’s expressions of concern about Mrs Thatcher’s privatization policies (though he did not, contrary to popular belief, use the phrase ‘selling off the family silver’) certainly grabbed headlines, as did Ted Heath’s frequent interventions during the Thatcher years, as well as Mrs Thatcher’s own coded criticisms of the Major government in the 1990s. The problem is that in an age where deference toward politicians is on the slide, ex-PMs can no longer be assured of the respect that used to go automatically with a hearing. As Rawnsley reminded us:

Much of the Thatcherite right never forgave Sir John for replacing their heroine. He fought an epic and bitter battle over the Maastricht treaty with the Tories he dubbed “bastards” and many of them are still around, among them Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood and Peter Lilley.

There is even more crackle to the feelings aroused by Mr Blair. Some on the right cannot forgive him for beating the Tory party at three elections in a row. Some on the left cannot forgive him for winning 13 years in power for Labour. He has been thinking about plunging back into British politics for some time. The long period of agonising about whether and how to do so tells us that he is self-aware enough to know that there will not be universal applause for the prospect of hearing more from him. I regularly hear him called “toxic” and among some people that’s obviously true. I also often read that he is “the most reviled man in Britain”. I have yet to see any supporting evidence for that; the grounds for this claim need to be better than people logging on to Twitter to declare their hatred for him.

(It’s a shame, however, that Mr Rawnsley can’t bring himself to concede that words like “Iraq” and “Chilcot” might possibly have something to do with Mr Blair’s flagging reputation.)

It was the now-retired academic Geoffrey Searle, Emeritus Professor of History at East Anglia University, who wrote ‘In politics all success is ephemeral.’ He knew whereof he was writing, since the quote comes from his excellent 1992 work The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration, a book that brilliantly charts the trajectory of a once-monolithic political party from a record-breaking landslide election win in 1906 to virtual extinction in the 1950s. The radically changing fortunes that can accompany political careers mean that those who rise farthest can end up falling hardest. Jeremy Paxman put it starkly in his 2003 book The Political Animal:

Unlike American Presidents, who can serve only two terms, British Prime Ministers can continue in office for as long as their party and the electorate will let them. They have no way of knowing when they are at their peak, and no inclination to walk away from a job which brings them status. There is no natural moment to leave with dignity: problems crowd in on every government, and the need to believe that things can only get better is understandable. But to try to defy nemesis is only to make it more certain. It really does end in tears…

An ex-MP is just an ex-MP. The worst thing about being a former Prime Minister is to be the corporeal expression of an entire, generally discarded, world view.

Some ex-PMs will be paid more attention than others, of course: David Cameron has effectively exiled himself from public life, and seven years after his departure from No 10 Gordon Brown is still struggling to rebuild his reputation, as the outworkings of the ’08-’09 Crash are continuing to be felt. Perhaps the waters of Brexit Britain are so uncharted that even the authority and experience of former prime ministers won’t have much of an impact on how the post-EU story ends.

Check out my blog: