If being Prime Minister is inevitably the toughest job in
British politics, then being a former Prime Minister is surely not that far
Of the three surviving bearers of the title, the only one
who has made anything approaching a decent fist of it over the course of recent
years is that much under-rated figure, Sir John Major.
I will never forget his quiet dignity in defeat on that
bright May morning in 1997 when he spoke of curtains falling and actors leaving
the stage before going off to watch some cricket at The Oval.
And he has continued to be dignity personified throughout
the ensuing years, never once succumbing to the temptation to criticise any of
his many successors as Tory leader and only ever intervening in a way helpful
to his own party.
In this, Sir John was determined not to follow the example
of his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who made clear her own intentions shortly
after he succeeded her by declaring her skill at back-seat driving.
The Iron Lady, who was finally laid to rest this week,
clearly found being an ex-Prime Minister rather harder to come to terms with than
the actual job itself.
So, it seems, has Gordon Brown. When he lost the premiership in 2010, those
of us who still counted ourselves among his admirers hoped he would rebuild his
reputation by becoming a good constituency MP and backbench elder statesman.
Unfortunately, he has veered off into the biggest political
sulk since Edward Heath’s, barely ever turning up at the Commons and, save for
a rather self-justificatory attack on Rupert Murdoch, saying almost nothing of
any value since leaving Number Ten.
But the former Prime Minister whose post-Downing Street
career provides the greatest fascination, for me at any rate, is surely Tony
Aged just 54 when he left office in 2007, it was never
remotely likely that the former Sedgefield MP would go gently into that good
night as Sir John had done ten years earlier, and some sort of comeback was
always on the cards.
For a time, this looked likely to be at European level, with
the presidency of the European Council of Ministers the most obvious potential
But thwarted in that ambition by the surprise elevation of
Herman van Rompuy, his attentions have turned back to domestic politics and,
specifically, the future of the Labour Party.
Mr Blair took to the pages of Labour house journal The New
Statesman to warn party leader Ed Miliband that his opposition to welfare
reform and spending cuts risked reducing Labour to a party of protest.
In another recent intervention, he declared that the result
of the last election would have been closer had he still been leader, thereby implying
that the party’s chances of winning in 2015 depend on the extent to which it
stays true to his legacy.
This, incidentally, is poppycock. Whatever Mr Brown’s failings, had Mr Blair
gone on and on and attempted to win a fourth consecutive term in the teeth of a
recession, and with the baggage of Iraq
still hung around his shoulders, he would have gone down to a landslide of 1997
But no matter. Blair
is back, and it is clear that the younger Miliband had better get used to the
For now, the party leader’s stock response has been to turn
Mr Blair’s own revisionist methodology against him, saying: “Tony Blair taught us the world changes. The
world does change and we will learn our lessons."
But while this is undoubtedly true, he will eventually have
to explain in much more detail how the Labour Party under his leadership has
responded to those changes.
Over the past couple of weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron
has had to suffer the inevitable unhelpful comparisons with an illustrious
predecessor who won three straight election victories where he could only
manage a hung Parliament.
Mr Miliband’s chances of going one better may well depend on
how far, if at all, he can escape from Mr Blair’s long shadow.