Image: Wikimedia Commons / Number 10

The ghosts of ministerial past

In November 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appointed former Prime Minister David Cameron to the position of Foreign Secretary in his cabinet and recommended him for a life peerage. In his statement on the appointment, Lord Cameron spoke on helping Sunak: “Deliver the security and prosperity our country needs.” Cameron is the first former Prime Minister to be appointed to a ministerial post in over fifty years (since 1970), begging the broader question of what role past Prime Ministers have to play in the current political climate.

Following Cameron’s departure from No. 10 Downing Street in 2016, there have been four consecutive Conservative MP’s who have replaced him in the role. This has marked fourteen years of governments with an agenda led by Conservatives. However, instead of progress, after the former Prime Minister left office, each new premiership has marked a resulting period of decline felt across the country.

Politics has become tainted with the broken promises of the past twenty four years

If there is one thing connecting the former Prime Ministers, it is that they believe they have the power and ability to “rescue” the nation from the direction it now finds itself in. On 9 May 2016, the then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, ardently stated: “We have always been a European power, and we always will be.” This was just over two months before his resignation from both the post of PM and from government in its entirety. On 28 September 1999, on the eve of the 21st century, Tony Blair spelt his ambition to: “Finish the Tory Party’s chances of doing as much damage in the next century as they’ve done in this one.” On 6 September 2022, Ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the country in his resignation speech, stating: “It’s time for us all to get behind Liz Truss and her team and her programme.

Looking back at these sentiments, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see the vista that has opened from the ideals of former politicians – of power and reality. In the UK today, the word politics has become tainted with the broken promises of the past 24 years, with each different government taking turns to rectify the damage of their predecessor and ultimately leaving the country in a worse state upon departure.

At present, it is easy to view the tainted office of No.10 Downing Street and more broadly politics as broken. Why then have so many former Prime Ministers been so eager to make a return to the offices of parliament after years outside of front-line politics? In 2019, after her departure from Downing Street, Ex-Prime Minister Theresa May resumed a position in the back benches as MP for Maidenhead and Berkshire. May is now the only former Prime Minister currently holding an office in parliament.

Blair is back in step with a party that rejected him upon his departure almost 20 years earlier

However, far from keeping a low profile, her three predecessors Cameron, Brown, and Blair, have maintained an active role in the political arena in various forms. After taking on several consultant and advisory positions, Cameron has seemingly sprung back into the forefront of politics from obscurity. However, after just six months in the role of Foreign Secretary, the jury is still out on Cameron’s policy record. As many former PMs have found, a lot of the messes he is now clearing up have been made by his own political mistakes that have come home to roost years later, particularly negotiating a Brexit deal that he initiated with a referendum seven years earlier.

Blair took an altogether different approach, amassing a vast personal fortune of 70 million pounds via the dealings of his firm: Tony Blair Associates. However, now back in favour with a more centrist Labour party under Opposition Leader Kier Starmer, Blair is back in step with a party that rejected him upon his departure almost 20 years earlier. Acting in support of Starmer in an advisory capacity, Blair seems to have regained a degree of respect, as shown through the suggestion that: “Clearly been keen to reinsert himself as a big player in British politics.” But Starmer “is the first leader who seems prepared to let him do so.”

At a Tony Blair Institute conference 2023, the two exchanged thoughts about the future of Britain. However, beyond their conversation, the interaction signalled just how invested the former Prime Minister still is in current politics, as well as the incredible degree of influence he could have in the 2024 election. His successor, Gordon Brown, was effectively branded as a “leader in waiting”. However, his time in office was comparatively far shorter. Perhaps a lack of opportunity to be visited by scandal has given him a comparatively favourable reputation in the wake of his premiership.

This leaves both Sunak and Starmer a matter of months to finalise their positions, standings, and respectability in the eyes of the public

Where Brown has cast his eyes towards the political arena, this has been primarily on social issues such as poverty and education. His firm belief in the importance of primary education is seen through his acceptance of the position of United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education in 2012, shortly after leaving office. However, Brown has had potentially greater involvement in advising the current shadow government than even his predecessor, exemplified by his 2022 proposal put forward to Starmer on “new forms of economic devolution“.

Since leaving office, the former PM has renewed links with the current Labour government, reporting that they “need to clean up the centre” — if they want to win over the electorate in the 2024 election. The final deadline for a UK general election is the 28 January. This leaves both Sunak and Starmer a matter of months to finalise their positions, standings, and respectability in the eyes of the public. Against a backdrop of one of the most tumultuous periods Britain has faced in the eyes of the 21st century, it seems that they are therefore utilising the wisdom and experience of former Prime Ministers in order to help them do so.

Time will tell whether Starmer can be the forth Labour candidate to take a party from the opposition into government

Starmer revealed that his regular talks with Blair are: “Not so much about specific policies, but more about the pace, the preparedness of getting an opposition ready for government if we are privileged enough to be voted in to serve.” This reopens a forum for assessing the power and influence these former premiers, particularly Cameron, Brown, and Blair are now having in shaping the agenda of the current government and opposition.

Time will tell whether Starmer can be the fourth Labour candidate to take a party from the opposition into government, almost 30 years after Blair’s overwhelming majority against John Major in 1997. However, it is becoming more evident that the legacy of former Prime Ministers will have a greater impact on the outcome of this election than they have had at any time prior in this century.


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