In the final weeks of her premiership, as she has considered life after Downing Street, Theresa May sought out the only people who could reasonably give her advice: her predecessors. The outgoing British Prime Minister reached out to David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to discuss life after office, officials told The Atlantic.
The revelation sheds new light on the prime minister’s mind-set as she faces up to the reality of her life outside the trappings of office as a member of the exclusive club of ex–prime ministers, currently inhabited by just four living individuals. (May also spoke to John Major, the Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, though only on the sidelines of a cricket reception, the two officials said.)
The reality of May’s new situation, even if she has taken steps to prepare herself, is likely to come as a shock, according to those who know her or have seen former prime ministers adjust to their new life outside 10 Downing Street. As prime minister and, before that, home secretary, May has not had to regularly use a computer for nine years; her official car will be withdrawn, and her security detail dramatically curtailed.
Everyone knows what happens before a prime minister leaves Downing Street, after all. What’s less clear, however, is what happens after.
When May, who succeeded Cameron as prime minister in July 2016, steps down today to make way for her successor, Boris Johnson, she will do so as Britain’s second female prime minister, as well as one of its shortest-serving leaders in decades. Her premiership will be defined not by those metrics, though, but by what she failed to do: deliver Brexit.
Unlike Cameron—who resigned in 2016 as prime minister and then as a member of Parliament after he allowed a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, then campaigned to remain in the bloc, only to see his efforts fail—May will continue as an MP, representing the southern English town of Maidenhead, she has told officials inside 10 Downing Street. This means that when May leaves office, she will need to travel only less than half a mile down the road to the House of Commons, where she will resume her original role of being a rank-and-file member of Parliament—just like hundreds of other MPs.
May isn’t the first premier to make this transition. Former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Major, both Conservatives like her, returned to the backbenches—the area of the House of Commons where non-ministerial lawmakers sit—after leaving Downing Street for two and four years, respectively; Brown, the most recent Labour prime minister, stayed on as an MP for five. The transition may be common, but it is still awkward. Apart from the lifelong police protection afforded to all former British leaders, ex–prime ministers effectively return to life as semi-ordinary citizens—albeit ones who once held the highest political office in the land.
“Leaving the job that you’ve been honored to do and care so much about is a huge wrench emotionally,” Kate Fall, Cameron’s former deputy chief of staff, told The Atlantic. “Getting used to a day that isn’t absolutely jam-packed [with] all the people and the stress and the decisions you have to make—it does take time to rebuild.”
It’s a stark shift even for those who continue to serve in Westminster, the London neighborhood where the Houses of Parliament sit. “Obviously, they have a very high profile as a backbench MP,” Tim Durrant, a senior researcher at the London-based Institute for Government think tank, told The Atlantic, noting that former prime ministers have handled their transitions differently. While some, such as Cameron, opted to keep a low profile in order to make way for their successors, others, such as the former Conservative leader Edward Heath, chose to do the opposite; his criticisms of his successor, Thatcher, were considered so bitter that his remaining time in Parliament was dubbed “the incredible sulk.”
Others, still, choose a third way: to leave politics entirely. Cameron’s days on the backbench lasted two months before he decided to resign his seat, citing concerns that his presence in the chamber risked posing a “distraction” to the agenda of the next Conservative government, May’s, as it sought to lead Britain out of the EU.
“David felt that he had underestimated how difficult it would be for him,” Fall said, noting that though Cameron “liked the idea” of staying on as an MP, it was much less feasible in practice. “Imagine if he’d been a backbench MP all this time. Every single time there was one of these iconic votes we’ve seen over the last two years, David would have been [asked], ‘What did you vote, Mr. Cameron?’”
Blair, the former Labour prime minister, didn’t bother keeping his seat in Parliament at all in 2007, resigning both his role as Labour leader and his parliamentary seat on the same day. He also quickly sold his house in the constituency, shedding his last physical link with the unfashionable area of the industrial North East of England in favor of his new international life. Such choices have seen his reputation markedly sour in Britain out of office. Though both Cameron and Blair have left public life (excluding occasional comments on Brexit), each went on to find lucrative careers outside parliamentary politics: Blair served five years as a Middle East envoy representing the United States, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations while taking on, in 2008, advisory roles with JP Morgan, the American bank, and the Swiss insurance giant Zurich, before launching his eponymous institute for global change in 2016. He was also revealed to have controversially served as an adviser to the Kazakhstan government, despite its record of human-rights abuses.
Cameron, meanwhile, has spent his political retirement making rounds on the public-speaking circuit, as well as writing his much-anticipated memoir, which is scheduled for release later this year, documenting his own account of the Brexit referendum. (Since both men took on their new roles after leaving office, neither has had to declare his earnings.)
Those close to May say the chances of her following in Cameron’s and Blair’s footsteps are slim, noting that even though she served in senior roles for 21 of her past 22 years in Parliament, she never let those positions interfere with her work for her constituency. “There are lots of trips I’ve been on with her where we’ve ... been on a plane for 14 hours, and we’ve all gone home to go to sleep and she’s gone off to open a village fete,” a third government official told The Atlantic, requesting anonymity to discuss May’s plans once she leaves office. “I think she’ll almost be looking forward to having a bit more time to spend with her constituents.” One of the two officials who confirmed the prime minister’s calls to her predecessors said May would be much closer to Major and Brown in her conduct post–Downing Street than to either Blair or Cameron. Major oversaw a chaotic, scandal-hit administration and was routed by Blair in Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, but has seen his reputation markedly recover in the years since he held office. Until recently, he led a quiet life, becoming president of a major cricket club and involving himself in charity work. Brown also shunned lucrative commercial opportunities to establish his own charitable foundation.
Staying on as MP won’t be easy. Though May will no longer have the weight of the country on her shoulders, she will ultimately play a role in the next critical phase of the Brexit saga. Her successor will have until October 31—just one month of parliamentary time—to deliver a breakthrough Brexit deal that May couldn’t achieve in three years, or prepare to leave the EU without one. What May does, and how she votes, will undoubtedly be scrutinized.
“She can either take the David view that, as a former premier, she knows how difficult it is and she’s going to be … supportive,” Fall said. “Obviously, as an MP, that’s more difficult … It’s not like she’s going to the backbenches and we have a huge majority [May’s Conservatives and their allies have seen their majority reduced to just a handful of votes in Parliament] and she’s just sitting there. Every single vote is critical.”