Regardless of one’s position on the political spectrum, it would be fair to say that every British Prime Minister in living memory has had elements of their premiership attacked viciously by either the press, the public or the MPs sat on the opposite bench – or as is often the case now, a combination of all. However, in recent years, greater news coverage has been in pursuit of reporting on the roles that former Prime Ministers have played in influencing activities in the private sector, and what impact this has had on the political climate more broadly.
Not all former Prime Ministers go to retire in the country and write a memoir (though this is still a popular plan of choice) – indeed, the voice of a former Prime Minister arguably can have just as a great an impact on the endeavour of their choice, as it did during their time in office. But do the roles of former Prime Ministers in the current political and social landscape go some way to forgive, or at least help the public to forget, some of their failings in office?
To ensure parity to both sides of the political spectrum, let us consider the post-government office roles of the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Prime Minister between 2007-2010) and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (2010-2016), respectively.
Before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he served as Chancellor under Tony Blair’s government at the turn of the millennium. Mr Blair’s failures in office, specifically the intervention in the Iraq War later condemned by the Chilcot inquiry, are unlikely to be washed from the pages of history – but the legacy of Gordon Brown seems to be taking a different turn. It has recently been reported that Mr Brown, who is the WHO’s ambassador for global health financing, has organised a letter from over 160 former world leaders and relevant health figures to lobby the governments of the G20 group of nations to urgently send spare Covid-19 vaccines to the health workers of developing nations. Mr Brown has used his privileged position as a former Prime Minister to call on the current global political elite to accept their “moral responsibility” to urgently airlift rapidly expiring vaccines to countries in Africa and Asia using military helicopters. This is what he had to say on the matter on BBC 4’s Today programme earlier in the week:
“We’ve got about 240m vaccines that are stored in America, Europe, United Kingdom, and Canada that are not being used, that are not needed, because we’ve accounted for vaccines for boosters and vaccines for young people and we’ve got to get them out to the people who need them to save lives.”
Instead of using his powerful voice as a former Prime Minister to help the political efforts of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), by contrast, David Cameron lent his political expertise to the private sector of financial business. Both former Prime Ministers have been involved in the financial sector, but on different sides of the political debate – and spectrum. After leaving office, Mr Cameron used his Conservative Party contacts (who were still in government) to provide consultancy services to Greensill capital, for which it is believed he was paid far more than when he was Prime Minister. Mr Cameron’s role of chiefly lobbying government colleagues informally to get Greensill a place on the Corporate Covid Financing Facility (CCFF) – a scheme to issue loans to struggling firms in the pandemic, which Greensill was denied – has been scrutinised by the Government and press alike, and has led to calls for a review of government lobbying rules as a result of the controversy. Essentially, Mr Cameron’s use of personal contacts for professional activities was underhand at best, but does show how a former Prime Minister’s voice can be used for incredibly different purposes, depending on the circumstances of the individual.
These two examples of the role that former Prime Ministers can play in political life after they have left office, show how diverse the uses of powerful political voice can be. To revisit the question of former Prime Ministers ‘redeeming’ themselves after political transgressions in office: this can never be painted as a good versus evil political narrative, though perhaps some former Prime Ministers have used their voice for more relative ‘good’ than others. In the end, history will decide.
Image credit: feyip via Creative Commons.