Of the 55 figures ever to hold the title of British prime minister, six are still alive. And thanks to a confluence of events this week, the overwhelming majority of them have decided to show the world what a terrible job it is to undertake.
After all, when it ends for British prime ministers, it ends fast. There is no presidential grace period after they lose their job. Gordon Brown resigned his leadership on the Downing Street doorstep at 7:20 p.m. on May 11, 2010, after failing to form a majority government. Just 90 minutes later, David Cameron stood on the same doorstep, kissed his wife, and entered 10 Downing Street to start work as the new prime minister. There was no ceremony, no performances, no official library erected.
Brown would eventually write a book about his time as P.M., but it sold just 3,309 copies in its first week. By comparison, Barack Obama’s A Promised Land sold 1.7 million copies in a week, and now he has a podcast with Bruce Springsteen. In short, British P.M.’s have plenty to complain about.
We’ll start with the man who held the post longest. Tony Blair, who served in the role for a decade, has gone on record in a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, saying, “I don’t think I did enjoy the job.” Blair also expressed unease at everything from the scrutiny that the position brought to his family to the “nugatory” value of experience in the job. “The first job I ever had in government was prime minister,” he told Radio 4. “The paradox is that you start at your most popular and least capable and you end at your least popular and most capable.”
What’s interesting about this newfound disquiet is that Blair has never managed to successfully convince anyone that he wouldn’t chew your arm clean off to get at the premiership again. In recent years, he has been first in line to declare his opinion on any number of issues, from Brexit to the Labour leadership to Britain’s coronavirus-vaccination strategy, to the extent that he never seems very far away from a potential comeback bid. Or, as the less charitable Spiked—an online politics-and-culture magazine in Britain—put it last week, “Why won’t Tony Blair leave us alone?”
One man who you suspect doesn’t want the job back is David Cameron. His participation in the same Radio 4 show was so comically bleak that it felt like it had been ripped from the pages of an especially mordant Alan Bennett monologue. “I used to find during the day that I would often pop up and make a sandwich for lunch,” Cameron said of his highlights at 10 Downing Street. “Just a few moments of peace at lunchtime and making a cheese sandwich and eating it alone. These were really valuable moments.”
Then again, if you were in the sort of pickle that Cameron currently finds himself in—his reputation blown apart by the revelation that he lobbied the current chancellor of the Exchequer for government funds to save the finance firm he worked for, the one he handed state contracts to while in office, the one that has been operated so ineptly that it may well yet destroy the entire British steel industry—then perhaps you, too, would be nostalgic for the times when your day peaked with a plain cheese sandwich eaten alone.
Tony Blair, who served in the role for a decade, has gone on record in a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, saying, “I don’t think I did enjoy the job.”
The next former prime minister to run into trouble this week was Theresa May, who has found herself as the primary target of a new book. In the Thick of It is the diary written by former M.P. and onetime de facto deputy foreign secretary Alan Duncan. If the extracts published so far are any indication, it’s less a book and more an indiscriminate spray-gunning of everyone Duncan has ever crossed paths with. Former armed-forces minister Mike Penning is a “dumbo.” Labour M.P. Laura Smith is a “stupid, silly, rancid little idiot.” Priti Patel, the current home secretary, is variously “Priti Outrageous” or “Priti Horrendous,” depending on the severity of her most recent screwup.
It isn’t all venom—Duncan saves praise for Jared Kushner (“Unusually baby-faced and attractive”), flight attendants (“Flight to Chicago, much enhanced by a very good-looking Northern steward called Benjamin”), and the mediocre CBS remake of Hawaii Five-O (“Yippee!”)—but the worst of it all is reserved for May. “Her social skills are sub-zero,” he writes. “Charisma bypass.” “No personality.” “A cardboard cut-out.” In her final weeks in office, she is “a single flaking old pit prop,” who goes down “like a bag of cold sick” in Parliament. It’s hard to read it and not wince on her behalf.
But, actually, he gives an even worse beating to the incumbent prime minister, Boris Johnson. In one entry alone, he describes Johnson as “a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement. He is an international stain on our reputation. He is a lonely, selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot.” But you suspect that this won’t bother Johnson an awful lot, since the man still somehow manages to be completely weatherproof.
Cameron said of his highlights at 10 Downing Street, “Just a few moments of peace at lunchtime and making a cheese sandwich.”
In recent days alone, Johnson has endured confirmation from the American pole-dancing entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri that they had a four-year affair, that his then wife almost caught them in flagrante on his sofa, and that they read Macbeth together as foreplay. (Presumably less “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury” and more “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.”)
Then there’s news that he is shamelessly attempting to set up a charity to help him cover the costs of a home refurbishment, the news that his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, has started work for a charity that’s currently under investigation for potential misuse of funds, the news that he spent $3.6 million of government money on a press room that looks like it was flung together with blue paint and plywood, and the news that he told M.P.’s that the U.K.’s coronavirus-vaccination strategy had succeeded “because of greed, my friends.”
All this and he’s still standing. It won’t last forever. Whether Johnson quits or is voted out, his reign will one day end. And when it does, you suspect that he’ll jump at the chance to join the ranks of beleaguered ex-P.M.’s.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL