When former leaders miss the limelight

Published by The i paper (5th November, 2018)

This may be a controversial statement in the current political climate, but David Cameron is a decent person. As prime minister, he had a genuine sense of public service installed in him by his parents, even if it was a form of noblesse oblige. He took his Downing Street duties seriously. He held together a coalition government amid economic difficulties that looks like an oasis of stability compared with today’s Westminster farce. And he understood the need for his party to reflect his nation.

It is understandable if he is bored with his book-writing and flirting with return to the political frontline. Yet there is, of course, one gigantic problem – especially with the reported idea he fancies being foreign secretary. For his legacy will forever be stained by the Brexit disaster, the consequence of his tragic failure to contain the frothing nationalist fanatics of his party’s right wing that ended up blowing open alarming divisions of age, class and region in our country.

As Enoch Powell said, all political careers end in failure. Cameron shows this with stark clarity but there is nothing unique about former leaders missing the limelight. For all his vast intellect Gordon Brown, who lusted after the top job for so long then proved so shallow in power, has struggled to find a role since defeat. Last week he wrote an impassioned article about children dying in war zones, ignoring that he was chancellor in the government behind the Iraq War. This cataclysm ensures Tony Blair remains loathed by a nation that once looked to him with such hope, regardless of the accuracy of his current political analysis. The contempt is inflamed by the former prime minister’s money-grabbing antics with autocrats.

Clearly political capital runs out rapidly for leaders as they grapple with complex problems and fend off ambitious rivals, leaving voters hungry for fresh faces. This is intensified when they make catastrophic errors such as Brexit and the invasion of Iraq. Yet times also change, pendulums swing and politics moves fast, so ideas that once felt innovative and people who seemed inspiring suddenly seem like dinosaurs. Even leaders who seem to have navigated successfully the bumpy terrain of political retirement can be undone by mistakes from their past.

One striking example of this is playing out in mid-term elections across the Atlantic. The Democrats are desperate to defeat a rival party led by a president they detest, searching for weapons as they struggle to recover from shattering defeat. Yet there is a two-time White House winner being largely shunned. For Bill Clinton – who defined the party with his wife for so many years – is stuck in what the New York Times called political purgatory after half a century of boosting their candidates.

Hillary Clinton has reappeared tentatively in the spotlight despite handing Donald Trump the White House keys. Yet her husband is suddenly seen as so toxic even close allies have asked him to stay away from campaigns. The problem is two-fold. First, his centrist triangulation feels old-fashioned and outdated to young voters as social media pushes politicians to sharpen their definition. Second, and more fundamentally, his behaviour towards women has belatedly hurt his standing at a time when the #MeToo movement is reshaping public life.

Clinton’s behaviour in office would see him drummed out of the modern Democratic party, even if his wife still insists a president hitting on a 22-year-old intern is not an abuse of power. Monica Lewinsky was not alone; there were other accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Many Democrats know there are similarities between their own party brushing aside their former president’s misdeeds and Republicans who hold their noses and back Trump to win tax cuts or reshape the Supreme Court. Clinton, once such a surefire winner, now haunts his party like Banquo’s ghost.

Yet there are leaders who prove it is possible to retain dignity and popularity after leaving office – although ironically, they tend to have been seen as sorry failures when they slunk back into private life. Look at Jimmy Carter, who returned to his two-bedroom ranch in Georgia and eschewed the world of corporate boards and big money speeches to support human rights and global health projects. Or John Major, who seems such a throwback with his decency, compassion and warmth compared with the vultures fighting over the bones of his battered party.

Most amazing of all is George W Bush, whose life since leaving office has been such a contrast to his buddy Blair’s desperate efforts to remain a player. Bush left the White House as most unpopular president since Richard Nixon yet is now seen favourably by almost two-thirds of Americans and in hot demand on the campaign trail. He achieved this by quietly building his library in Dallas, painting portraits, working on health schemes in Africa and, above all, seeking to atone for Iraq by finding jobs for military veterans and destigmatising post-traumatic stress disorder.

Perhaps Cameron could one day come back as justice secretary, fulfilling his desire to drive through much-needed prison reform. Or even as home secretary to update archaic drug laws, an early interest in his career. But far better to put the Big Society into action by using his skills and contacts to build a social enterprise that helps people born without silver spoons in their mouths. This was, after all, the thing he said fired him up most, something that could make a real difference to the country he loved. And it could help reconnect ordinary people with Westminster, the issue exposed so terribly by the Brexit disaster. After all, as Bush once said, we can agree the past is over.

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