19th April 2021
The last former prime minister to go to the house of lords was nearly thirty years ago.
Margaret Thatcher became a peer in 1992, when she stood down as a member of parliament.
This followed the similar examples of other prime ministers who entered the house of lords when ceasing to be a member of parliament: Alec Douglas-Home (1974), Harold Wilson (1983) and James Callaghan (1987).
Edward Heath instead stayed on as a member of parliament after losing office in 1974 until 2001.
And, in general, this accorded with what had always happened – former prime ministers continued in parliamentary and public life.
(With the occasional exception such as Macmillan, and even he accepted a peerage eventually.)
Since the example of Thatcher, no former prime minister has become a member of the house of lords.
John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron: all promptly left the commons after losing office but have stayed – at least formally – outside of Westminster.
Only Theresa May – still a member of parliament – contributes to parliament as a former prime minister.
Until recently there was no issue about what former prime ministers did, because former prime ministers became (willingly or not) elder statesmen and stateswomen.
Coming together from time to time to pose with the queen.
But like police officers, former prime ministers seem to be getting younger.
And, perhaps because of the rules on disclosure of business interests, former prime ministers do not become members of the house of lords.
Former prime ministers instead appear to have business and public speaking careers instead – though, to his credit, less so with the example of Brown.
So we have a somewhat novel feature on the political landscape: the (relatively) young former prime minister commercially active outside of parliament.
And what, if anything, should we do with such individuals?
Should they be under special rules – distinct from other former ministers?
Should they have generous pensions – so that they do not resort to commercialising their unmatched connections?
Should they be compelled to become peers, so that the disclosure rules apply to them too?
Or should we just let them get on with whatever they wish to do?
The office of prime minister is unique – and it thereby follows that the contacts and knowledge of a former prime minister will also be exceptional.
Of course: we could always rely on the ‘good chap’ theory of the British constitution – for, of course, no former prime minister would do such unseemly things as texting ministers for contracts for a business.
There is a problem – but less obvious is how to fix it.
What do you do with a former prime minister?
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