A memo to politicians: don’t wait until you leave office to be interesting

We have somehow created an ecosystem that suffocates the likeability of our political representatives. Does it have to be this way?

October 13, 2023
Frenemies and podcast hosts, George Osborne and Ed Balls. Image: Rob Nicholson / Persephonica
Frenemies and podcast hosts, George Osborne and Ed Balls. Image: Rob Nicholson / Persephonica

Once upon a time they ripped bleeding chunks out of each other over the despatch box. Now they are two peas in a pod. Cry sweet tears of joy at the sight of enemies morphing into friends.  

I am, of course, referring to George Osborne and Ed Balls, who once gave a passable impression of heartily despising each other when chancellor and shadow during the first term of the Cameron government. Now they share an entertaining podcast, Political Currency, in which they chew the fat, crack jokes and gently rib each other.

Give peace a chance? Step this way.

This particular mould was crafted by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, the odd couple of post-political life whose own pod-bromance has been such a soaraway success that the pair can now fill the Albert Hall with devoted fans.

This week Osborne and Balls were the star act at a dinner in London and I saw close-up their comfortable chemistry. It was an off-the-record occasion so I sadly can’t bring you the highlights of their Q&A session with an influential media audience. But I can share the best question of the evening, which was greeted with a gust of laughter and applause.

“Why,” the questioner wanted to know, “are politicians so much more likeable and interesting once they are no longer in office?”

The questioner was not wrong. Rack your brains to think of frontline politicians who also gave the appearance of being genuinely human.  Mo Mowlam is usually cited as a rare example of someone who seemed both flawed and loveable, though she won few prizes for it at the time. Ken Clarke defiantly brandished large cigars, wore the wrong type of shoes, looked decidedly unkempt and knew a lot about jazz. This was enough to qualify as a “hinterland” and didn’t seem to count against him.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was a laugh, but was more loved by sketch writers than party leaders. John Prescott might just make the list, if only for his pugilism. You would either love or loathe to have a pint with Nigel Farage, but his seven failed attempts to get into parliament disqualify him.

Charles Kennedy and Boris Johnson were perhaps all too human. Of the current crop of frontbench MPs perhaps only Angela Rayner succeeds in exuding an occasional sense of fun and mischief.

But think of all the no-longer politicians who suddenly seem much more fascinating and loveable than we ever knew. Alan Johnson has emerged as a much more rounded figure since abandoning any political ambitions. All round good bloke.

Were you still up for Portillo? Now look at him: polymath of print and screen. Wagner, railways, chat shows, ethical dilemmas: he’s your man.

Theresa May, it turns out, can be funny: who knew? Jacqui Smith never exactly sparkled while in office under Blair and Brown, but have you heard her bantering away with Iain Dale on their joint podcast, For The Many? She brings to mind a pit pony set loose in green pastures.

And so the list goes on—including many of the people formerly known as Conservatives who, once ejected by Johnson from the party he commandeered, suddenly seemed like butterflies taking wing.

What’s going on? A group of Australian academics recently promoted the term “post-retirement enlightenment syndrome” in specific relation to politicians—and also senior police officers—who “come out” in favour of criminal drug reform only once they have safely left office.

It’s a grabby phrase, but sadly their academic paper tapers off with a somewhat verbose appeal for research looking into the “structural and relational aspects of ‘political will’ and ‘political courage’.”

Well, yes. Though it may be that a couple of simpler answers lie to hand.

Ironically, one is to be found in Alastair Campbell. Before reaching his present state of post-retirement enlightenment he was Master of the Grid—the spreadsheet approach to political communication which ensured that all MPs all the time, awake or asleep, were unswervingly on message. Think Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, only not so cuddly. 

Of course, Campbell would argue in his defence that his straitjacket tactics were a necessary response to the media we have in this country, aggressively hunting for splits, gaffes and slips—or, indeed, any deviance from the political straight and narrow. 

Voters might or might not like their representatives to be likeable and interesting, but Campbell—and, to be fair, his successors—were not inclined to test that hypothesis. 

So, yes, the media plays its part in snuffing out any instincts politicians may have to reveal themselves in all their messiness and fallibility—including half the things that make most of us interesting and likeable. And the political machine responds by selecting people who, at heart, may not be at all interesting or likeable in the first place. 

Which brings us back to the Australian academics and their quest for political courage. In truth, it’s a little feeble to blame the media for MPs being too timid to say or do things until safely in retirement, when—to put it mildly—much less turns on it. 

Love him or loathe him (and he gives a good impression of not caring much either way) Mick Lynch might well be the exemplar or someone who’s not going to wait until he’s in cardigan and slippers before he does what he believes in. 

He displays no fear of the media—indeed, it’s usually the other way round with broadcasters, who now quail before him. And he manages to be both blunt and human—funny, even—while inflicting endless grief on the nation’s commuters. How he does it is a mystery, but perhaps our Australian academics could start their research with him. Over a pint.  

So let’s hear it for the pit ponies in the meadows, able at last to reveal their true state of post-retirement enlightenment. But maybe we can be more forgiving of those who, while still in office, are prepared to venture off-grid. Don’t wait for the podcast! Do it now!