The Club of 5: Can former PMs really shape the debate?

In my favourite political sitcom, The Thick of It, defenestrated opposition leader Nicola Murray tells spin doctor Malcolm Tucker to take her seriously because she is now “a grandee”.   “You’re not a grandee… you’re a blandee” he replies. Tucker doesn’t want to listen to any of her advice.  She is, as far as he is concerned, well and truly past it.

It seems a little unfair to expect politicians out of office to just keep their mouths shut though.  They have, or feel they have, a balance of insight plus the leisure to reflect on it.  And these few days have seen former prime ministers from Major to May weighing in on the topic of international law.  And while David Cameron struck me as rather reluctant to make a pronouncement, John Major and Tony Blair, chomping at the bit, launched into print in a joint article.

The former premiers, and a more emotive collective noun would be very useful at this point, were giving their views on the Internal Market Bill, a piece of legislation acknowledged to be breaking international law.  The Bill is part of the Government’s arrangements ahead of the final Brexit day.  It is being speeded through the Commons.  There’s usually a gap between stages.  In this case committee follows second reading with haste.

But what effect do the opinions of former Prime Ministers have on those who have a vote?  The only one of the five who can actually take action is Theresa May, with her vote in the Commons.  That must mean the others believe or hope their words will prove persuasive.

This, in my view, is a major mistake.

Aristotle tells us that to be persuasive you need logos, ethos and pathos.  That means you have to have the logical argument; the audience needs to be receptive to you and you need to be the right person to deliver the message. We can’t deny that the former Prime Ministers have the arguments.  They have enough experience in law making to deploy them.  They can use the practical implications of breaking international law as well as the moral points.  But how receptive will the audience be, and do they make good messengers?

Former Prime Ministers are known by the audience of Parliamentarians as politicians who shared their workplace.  And in the world of politics dislike, distrust and jealousy tend to rear their head.  For an MP, having spent five years being snubbed by David Cameron will I want to listen to him?  And didn’t Tony Blair push through policies I fundamentally disagreed with?

While the media will find these ex premiers good copy, they are less helpful when persuasion is needed at Westminster.  And when what’s needed is someone with the ability to have a quiet word, to get people together in a committee room, to drop by in the tea room, they simply are not there. We now know that the Government had a decent majority in Monday’s vote. To defeat the government opponents and rebels will need less noise and more nuance

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University


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1 thought on “The Club of 5: Can former PMs really shape the debate?

  1. Interesting blog Paula and I think your instinct is right on how this is received. However personally I applaud them they are they have a unique perspective and whatever our political persuasion, they are right to call this out, Gordon Brown also had a lot of useful things to say, once trust is lost in the integrity of a country its hard to get it back. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The group of PMs keep quiet a lot of the time but maybe for some things you just have to speak out so we notice them when they do. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

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