Is William Hague's the last of the long-haul political career? Photo: Getty
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Are we witnessing the death of the long-haul political career?

What William Hague's career trajectory tells us about British politics.

What does it say about British politics that William Hague is quitting the game at just 53? His decision to call time on a political career by retiring from parliament at next year’s general election is the personal story of this reshuffle.

Did too much come too soon for the second-youngest cabinet minister of the 20th century (36, beaten by 31 year-old Harold Wilson)? Has politics lost its lustre? Are the heights of ministerial office not quite as giddying as we mere mortals assumed?

Our politicians seem to be getting younger, peaking sooner and finding themselves in their career dotage when previous generations were only just looking to step up a gear.

A hunched, silver-haired Harold Wilson first became prime minister at 48 back in 1964. In his day he was referred to as “youthful.” Nye Bevan was the enfant terrible of Attlee’s government at the same age. Thatcher became PM at 54 while Churchill and Gladstone were still at the top of their game in their 80s. At one time, high office was a steep mountain to climb and the culmination of a life spent in public service.

Now, the ministerial ladder is much shorter. While the elevation of Liz Truss and Nicky Morgan to the cabinet is important because of their gender, it’s also significant because of their relative youth and newness. Morgan (41) and Truss (38) were only elected in 2010.

With so much now coming so quickly, public office increasingly seems to be something to enter and pass through as part of a longer working life. (Before Morgan, the last woman to hold the position of education secretary was a 36 year-old Ruth Kelly, who is now out of politics altogether and working in corporate banking).

Tony Blair’s decision to quit parliament as soon as he resigned as prime minister in 2007 seems to have set a trend. Many of the Blairite tribe vacated British politics soon after, usually through choice (Milburn, Hutton, Hoon, Byers, and Hewitt) and occasionally at the hands of the voters (Charles Clarke). Many have found their way into corporate sinecures.

Other Brown-era ministers have also decided that they’ve had their fill of Westminster. Shaun Woodward (55), Hazel Blears (58), Meg Munn (54) and Bob Ainsworth (at 62, the same age as Attlee when he first became PM), will step down next year, leaving Westminster during what should be their prime years.

Perhaps it’s the growing opportunities for former ministers to ply their trade (or contacts book) elsewhere, or it might be the recognition that the many sacrifices of a political life are perhaps not worth it in the end, but against the backdrop of an ageing population, it is surely a perverse trend.
 

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories