When our politicians are forced out, these days they stay out (and journalists ensure that they are remembered for the ignominy that finally drove them out, not their achievements). It was not always so, but is now. There is outrage at the suggestion that an ousted PM may be to biding his or her time in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, awaiting the call to the nation’s aid.
In former days, a Prime Minister voted out might bide his time and be restored. Churchill stayed at the helm of his party and came back after six years to save the nation; Harold Wilson did to, in order to ruin it. Before Churchill it happened all the time; it was expected that a party leader would keep at his post. Gladstone, Disraeli and Salisbury swapped like the figures on a Victorian town hall clock. Some went, but then came back in other positions: Arthur Balfour was three years in Number 10, following his uncle, and was decisively voted out, but during the Great War he was appointed Foreign Secretary, in time to sign the Balfour Declaration (and have a town in Galilee named after him).
A Conservative or Labour party leader who loses a General Election will resign: this is accepted without question, but it is a very modern custom. It is a form of hara-kiri, accepting personal responsibility for a failure. In a media-driven age of personality politics, that is to be expected. There is no constitutional reason for it, nor a philosophical one. It is a custom though, which may explain the loudness of outrage when a recently expelled Prime Minister is touted as the once-and-future leader, and narratives are rewritten to excuse the faults of the departed one.
Why not? Churchill bounced between high office and disgrace his whole career; Baldwin came back to Number 10 twice; Gladstone came back three times. They of course were not expelled for disasters, and had not led our impossibly unstable ship of state. (If the state were shrunk back to the size it was before the Great War, so it did not constantly reel like a drunken elephant against the economy on all sides, there would be fewer disasters for Prime Ministers to set off.)
Now though? We have a media narrative that forces time to move on. A politician out of office at once become “the old days”, and the idea of their return is made to sound as ridiculous as bringing back bakelite telephones. For some reason that does not apply to bringing back dead political ideas: socialism is the vampire that has had stake after stake in its heart only to rise as in the old Hammer Horror films, if with more deathly effect.
Even so, we hear whispers. Tony Blair (remember him?) keeps piping up and I wake in sweat in the night that he might try to return, before I doze again reassured that it is impossible. The occasional Miliband reappears frequently; and then there is Boris, who is not cold yet.
Boris might be like Balfour – a three-year PM who could return in a different high office. However he is one of those who by the nature of his temperament can only be a private or commander-in-chief.
The main thing that keeps past senior politicians from pushing their way back into office is not their ultimate failure in office but their ultimate success out of it: speaking tours can pay more than a Prime Minister’s salary, and book deals to keep them guarding what remains of their legacy.
There may be a politician who bides his time in his private Colombey, who could be called from retirement to save the nation. It is doubtful that there any worthy to do so.
- Statesmanship, a lost art
- What happened to the hard rain?
- Getting back to competence
- Minutiae – the big failing
- A system failing in the middle
- The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham (former senior Lord of Appeal)
- Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics by Jonathan Sumption (former Justice of the Supreme Court)
- The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken
- Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws
- Scots Law for Journalists by Rosalind McInnes
- Constitutional & Administrative Law by Neil Parpworth
- By Thomas Hobbes:
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
- Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor
- Making a Success of Brexit and Reforming the EU by Roger Bootle
- Brexit: Its Necessity and Challenge by Tony Kosuge
- Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe by Denis MacShane
- Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union by Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley
- Brexit: How Britain Left Europe by Denis MacShane