What has got into Theresa May?” asked a bemused journalist who had been innocently minding his own business in the House of Commons on Thursday, when the former prime minister stood to deliver a tirade against the government’s travel ban.
She sounded like a fully paid-up member of the anti-lockdown backbench awkward squad as she tore into the government’s “incomprehensible” policy. Although her case was limited to the subject of international travel, she rehearsed the arguments made by Sir Graham Brady, Mark Harper and Steve Baker for opening up society generally: “It is incomprehensible, I think, that one of the most heavily vaccinated countries in the world is the one that is most reluctant to give its citizens the freedoms those vaccinations should support.”
Her intervention was interesting because, although she has been critical of Boris Johnson’s government, most recently over the cut to foreign aid, she has not been one of the leading critics of coronavirus restrictions.
Her argument carries more weight than those of the usual suspects, and not just because she is a former prime minister – although that helps. It was striking that she was treated in this debate as just another backbench MP. She was given three minutes to speak – a time limit that didn’t apply to ministers and their shadows.
But, being a former prime minister, she knows how to speak, and how to speak briefly when needs be. She was never a great orator, but in the ocean of mediocrity that is the Commons, her words cut through as vividly as her orange jacket in the sea of green benches.
There was an element of self-interest in those words. “In 2020, I went to Switzerland in August and South Korea in September. There was no vaccine, but travel was possible. This year, there is a vaccine, but travel is not possible.”
She had referred at the start of her speech to her entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in which we discover that she was paid £136,000 for that speech in South Korea, and enjoyed a benefit in kind worth £4,200 on the way out and again on the way back for the use of the Windsor Suite at Heathrow airport.
Yet she made the case for easing travel bans forcefully and succinctly. She said it is impossible to eradicate the virus, and that there will be new variants every year: “If the government’s position is that we cannot open up travel until there are no new variants elsewhere in the world, we will never be able to travel abroad ever again.”
Partly because she is a former prime minister, her comments were the front-page lead story in the libertarian Tory Daily Telegraph the next day.
Whatever you think of her arguments, she performed a democratic service by making them so clearly. What is more, it was a particular service to the central institution of our democracy, the House of Commons, that she made them in the chamber.
As a former prime minister, her comments would have been reported if they had been delivered in the House of Lords, or in a speech outside parliament altogether, but I admire her for staying in the Commons and making her case there.
I can understand why Tony Blair left parliament, and I think he has made an impressive contribution to the public debate, especially on Europe and more recently on the coronavirus. He made the case for the “first doses first” vaccination policy early on and eloquently (in The Independent, as it happens). Gordon Brown has also used his status as a former prime minister outside parliament well, to talk about international development.
Other prime ministers have been less effective. Sir John Major – he took a knighthood, but none of them since Margaret Thatcher has taken a seat in the Lords – gets undue attention for expressing whatever the metropolitan elite consensus happens to be at the time. David Cameron managed to keep more or less out of the public eye until the Greensill business.
So when a former prime minister does have something unexpected and challenging to say, it is good to hear it in the Commons. It does not make life easy for a current prime minister to have their predecessor hanging about in their personal space, although such things used to be managed differently.
Alec Douglas-Home even served as foreign secretary in the government of his successor, Ted Heath. Heath expected to do the same in Thatcher’s, which was part of his motive for the great sulk that gave the idea of former prime ministers staying on a bad name.
Johnson would no doubt have much preferred it if May had left the Commons at the last election, and when he ceases to be prime minister (he has another nine-and-a-half years to go to outlast Thatcher) he is most unlikely to stick around. But May has chosen to stay and fight.
Good for her; and good for democracy, and for the country.
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