Jacqui Smith: Beware the plight of the former minister, Theresa

Written by Jacqui Smith on 25 July 2016 in Opinion


In purging Cameroons and Osbornites, the new PM has created a potentially angry axis on the backbenches.

It’s a ‘brave’ prime minister who sacks more ministers than the size of her parliamentary majority. However that’s what Theresa May has done.

All reshuffles mean some people return to the backbenches, but it is unusual to perform such a purge of ministers who’ve held big jobs and who are politically and personally loyal to each other. What will they do next?

Firstly, they will grieve and readjust. I remember a former minister saying to me ‘I thought there was an IT problem – I looked at my diary and there was nothing in it’. Just as becoming a minister brings a combination of pride and terror, so the end of a ministerial career combines relief with a strong sense of loss.

On my first visit to the hairdresser after leaving government, she expressed surprise when I asked for a magazine. ‘But you usually have all those papers to read’ she said. It was the first time in ten years that I didn’t need to take a folder of ministerial work into the salon.

However there’s more to the transition than the opportunity to read ‘Hello’ magazine under the dryer. For most ministers there is little if any wind down time – one day you are totally immersed in decisions, reading, speaking, meetings – in fact running the country - the next you are not.

So how does a former minister fill their time? In our system, our ministers come largely from the House of Commons. They are elected MPs and that doesn’t end with their ministerial job. So they need to decide whether to stay in parliament on the back benches.

This can be particularly difficult for prime ministers. Some, like Tony Blair, immediately leave parliament to take up international work which can at least mimic the world position you gain as Prime Minister. Others like Gordon Brown stay in parliament longer, but the role can be awkward.

Gordon’s first parliamentary debate after the 2010 defeat was a late night adjournment debate on a constituency issue. He must have felt the contrast with a packed Prime Minister’s Questions chamber and others commented snidely on it. So you can’t win. If you turn up and do the backbench business, people will mock. If you stay away, people will criticise.

In the past, former Ministers often combined their work in parliament with lucrative outside interests. Apparently George Osborne, David Cameron and Nicky Morgan are already signed up to provide expensive speeches. This may help to soften the pay cut they’ve taken, but it won’t come near to providing interesting work to someone used to making country changing decisions.

Any roles which call directly on their ministerial experience or contacts are limited for a period of two years by the requirements of the Advisory Council on Business Appointments, but nevertheless I doubt we’ll see much of them doing the more mundane parliamentary business. Incidentally, this is a real problem for the whips. Late night votes need the numbers; statutory instrument committees need to be filled. ‘Yes I know you used to be Secretary of State for…., but we really need the numbers on the Draft Barnsley, Rotherham and Sheffield Combined Authority (Election of Mayor) Order committee’ (it really did exist, by the way). ‘And no, you can’t have an early night – we need you to vote at 10pm’

We can, of course, expect a crop of ministerial memoirs. They will be of differing quality. Ken Clarke told me that he is working on his – that book deserves to be a blockbuster. Self serving, score settling, back stabbing accounts of ‘why I was right all along’ are a less attractive read but it won’t stop them being written and published.

Of course ministers know where the bodies are buried in their former departments. They can turn from gamekeepers to poachers by embracing the scrutiny role of parliament through the select committee system. Stephen Dorrell moved from secretary of state to a successful chair of the Health Select Committee. Maria Miller has ably put the new Women And Equalities Committee on the map and Meg Hillier is following in the footsteps of another former Minister Margaret Hodge in making the Public Accounts Committee the nightmare gig for permanent secretaries and chief executives.

But for some, it will be political mischief which seems most exciting. Ambitious, experienced politicians are unlikely to be satisfied with slinking quietly into the background. This is why Theresa May has played a dangerous game. In purging Cameroons and Osbornites, she has created a strong and potentially angry axis on the backbenches.

Journalists who were quick to criticise and write off your carefully thought through pronouncements as a Minister will hang on your every word when you are no longer bound by collective responsibility and are prepared to offer a disobliging view on the current incumbents. In handing back the red box, the parliamentary under secretary of state for government stationary suddenly becomes a wise elder statesman.

This won’t happen immediately – former ministers will use the summer to reintroduce themselves to their families and to take the first uninterrupted holiday for a while.

However with a majority of 12, some tricky Brexit issues still to come and some spurned ministers on the backbenches, I’m not sure Theresa May’s honeymoon will last much longer than August.



Jacqui Smith is former home secretary and chair of the public affairs practice at Westbourne Communications.

Picture by: Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images

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