What should we do with a former prime minister?

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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22 thoughts on “What should we do with a former prime minister?”

  1. I doubt whether the lack of a generous pension motivated Cameron, but more likely sheer greed.

    1. Exactly so.
      A pension generous enough to satisfy our recent PMs would simply bankrupt the country.

  2. The obvious answer to many of these issues is to start a zero tolerance policy on misconduct in public office. The fly in that particular ointment is that a former prime minister is not in public office, although maybe someone who is better than me at it can put together an argument as to why they might still be guilty.
    There may be nothing unlawful about a former prime minister lobbying his colleagues, but surely if that lobbying is successful, and a minister gives assistance where that assistance is not properly due, the that would be misconduct, and perhaps the former prime minister is guilty of incitement to misconduct in public office.
    Is that something he could be charged with?

    1. You are making a good point, maybe it’s not the ‘lobby-er’ we need to target, but the ‘lobby-ee’; i.e. strengthen the disclosure rules of people in office, who they meet with and insist that this information is disclosed in a far more current time-frame than it is done at the moment.

      That way we could dampen the ‘demand-side’ of lobbying services, which should in turn lessening the ‘supply-side’: If any minister or senior civil servant knew, that being a party to ‘lobby-ing’ activity could land him/her in serious hot water if not the clink, then they’d be far more cautious!

  3. Your comment that Gordon Brown is the exception probably offers a way forward. He suggested a 5 years after leaving office as being a more reasonable period. May will be interesting to watch, I suspect she will be closer to the Brown example and end up in the Lords.

    If we have a press that is on the ball and can speak truth to power, which we sometimes do, then the humiliation will not be worth the risk. Cameron is probably learning that.

    On the other hand with Johnson the next candidate for out of office perhaps a stiffening will be necessary though of course he will have to endorse it. Fat chance.

  4. Zero tolerance of misconduct in public office is the right way forward. The evil in former PMs and other powerful figures lobbying is that it will lead to public decisions not being taken on the basis of rational analysis and therefore being taken badly, with sub-optimal outcomes. The misconduct is not in the lobbying but in the acceptance of it.

    1. Quite right. There will always be people with huge influence and trying to restrict that influence by law will merely encourage workarounds. Zero tolerance of misconduct is public office is the only way forward and there needs to be a complete step change with comprehensive codes of conduct and a transparent judicial process put in place

      Ultimately however it is voters who should be the judges of corrupt behaviour. The FPTP system means that a voter cannot vote for a party without voting for the individual whom the party has appointed as candidate. As a consequence, the candidate is far less exposed to public ire at his / her individual behaviour.

      FPTP is only proto-democracy and it needs replacing.

    2. I think BOTH parties to what is wrong-doing by one of them requiring the willed connivance and assistance of the other are committing the crime of misconduct.

      Maybe to make the charge stick you’d have to update and extend the law on “misconduct in public office” a bit…

  5. I think that framing the question as specific to former prime ministers distracts from the more serious and certainly more widespread “revolving door” problem that many ministers exploit for corrupt financial gain. In all but name, the “revolving door” is a bribe for ministers to make decisions that favour a certain company, structured in such a way that it is not illegal. While a minister is in office, they have no financial relationship with the company. Hence, no entry in the register of members’ interests. Hence, little scrutiny of the decision making process, especially when an emergency like a pandemic allows the minister to circumvent protections like competetive tendering.
    Next, a company lets it be known that they often hire ex-ministers as consultants or even board members, at extortionate rates of pay, for very few hours work.
    Then, the minister somehow finds out what it is a company wants. You can whistle for openess and minuted meetings all you like, there is no practical way to stop this part.
    Hey presto, minister makes decisions that just happen to favour the company in question. All they have to do then is wait until they’re shuffled or elected out of office, at which point they are free to take up their lucrative role.
    What should we do about those ministers (prime or not)?

  6. Former Prime Ministers remain Privy Counsellors. Given their access to sensitive (and commercially valuable) information, shouldn’t such right honourable persons be subject to restrictions on how inside information may be used?

  7. The main problem is not how the ex-prime ministers behave but whether those in government or the civil service feel the need to pay any attention to it. And this is just part of a much wider issue of how government decisions can sometimes be made, not primarily for the benefit of the country, but for sectional interests of all kinds: Red Wall voters, in exchange for their votes; party donors; old school friends; large corporate interests; your local pub landlord; fellow members of the Jockey Club, and so on.
    The traditional protections against these are crumbling. A truly independent and competent civil service should be the first line of defence, but they have been enfeebled by their political masters, infiltrated by SPADs, threatened with a cold rain coming, and (it now appears) even sometimes prone to favouring rival commercial interests of their own. The Nolan principles and the ministerial code should also provide protection, but these depend on a prime minister who feels bound by them himself, which the present incumbent clearly does not. A vigilant and honest press should achieve some restraint, but too many editors are quick to set aside their consciences in favour of selling more newspapers and pleasing their proprietors and their party friends. And ultimately the electorate should care about the integrity of the government, but they have been increasingly softened up by brazen dishonesty that has reduced their expectations of politicians to a low ebb.
    It’s hard to see how to reverse these trends but (as with other problems discussed in this blog) it seems unlikely that the law will provide the answers. However I cling to the hope that some of the cases currently being pursued by the Good Law Project will have some effect, not only on the government but on the wider public’s perception of their behaviour.

    1. 100% agree and this is why I subscribe to both DAG and the Good Law Project. Both of which should be tax deductible.

  8. What should we do with a former prime minister?
    A difficult question.
    I have absolutely no regard for the “peerage system” None!

    When I look at those who rejected a Peerage ,I have a slight glimmer of hope( I include those who were NOT PMs.)
    If the Labour party ever had a PM again , Say Starmer
    Would he reject one? I think not,
    So much for the age old plan of voting them out of existence
    Principals available in the “Poundshop”

    The whole concept of peerages is flawed

    Might I suggest a slightly extreme measure
    After all they have all done an extreme amount of damage

    Is Transportation still on the statutes?

  9. I’m inclined to the view that former prime ministers should be found either in the dock, or facing a firing squad; but I recognise that you would consider this a flippant view, so I’ll offer another.

    You say:

    And, perhaps because of the rules on disclosure of business interests, former prime ministers do not become members of the house of lords.

    Compel former prime ministers, on relinquishing that office, to become peers. In that way their business activities will be pretty transparent.

  10. Former Prime Ministers learning from their mistakes in the full glare of modern media is working quite well for me – whether it’s the news media or very fine David Hare TV dramas.

  11. Becoming a republic with an elected President might give some of them something useful to do.

    1. That is a spectacularly bad suggestion, in my opinion. If we want a non-political head of state, on the lines of the presidents of Israel or Ireland or India, or indeed on the lines of the current head of state of the UK or the Netherlands or Denmark, and assuming it is an elected post, then the last people you want standing are people who were head of a political party and good at politicising everything.

      How we would end up with a non-political head of state would be a challenge. It certainly shouldn’t be a retirement job for the current head of government.

  12. Quibble: I would not describe either John Major or Gordon Brown as having “ promptly left the commons after losing office” — they both stayed on as backbench MPs for the term after they lost the General Election. They’re a contrast to Blair and Cameron, who took the ‘Chiltern Hundreds’ soon after exiting No.10.

    Though neither Major or Brown are comparable to Edward Heath and Theresa May, who stood for re-election at General Elections after their premiership, which I assume is the thrust of your point.

  13. Wiser heads than mine will have sensible ideas, but for me, the question has triggered an earworm of “What shall with do with a drunken sailor”. I’m sure that there are many former Prime Ministers who don’t deserve to be subjected to some of the treatments set out in that song, but the real problem (as you have averred in many of these blog posts) is that the public at large appears not to care about the behaviour of current or former politicians. Until that changes, nothing else will change.

  14. Rethinks are indeed needed.
    PMs are too powerfull.
    PPEs are too many.
    FPTP makes us too partisan
    Professional politicians too detached.
    Money too easily buys influence and if unchecked, will end up buying power.
    The national press is too good an example.
    The crown as head of state will be too weak.
    The alure of lucre is too strong for exPMs to be satisfied with “good chap elder statesman” status.

    Do we need “professional” (as in paid for what they do and not necessarily whether they are competent) politicians? The civil service is there for that. The elected govt is there to direct them and the Opposition to hold them to it.

    I suggest that you should earn the right to public office by first working and paying taxes in the economy. You should not be able to hold office for longer than you have worked. Politicians’ feet might then be closer to the ground, even if they were no more honest.

    Whether or no that is workable, ideas need to be looked at.

    Change must come or this system will rot. Further.

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