The former prime minister’s decision to stay on the front lines of politics, even if she’s in the backbenches in Parliament, is not unheard of in Britain. It is unusual, however: Many recent British prime ministers have instead opted for some form of early retirement and lucrative side hustle after leaving office.
In other countries, the idea of a former world leader staying on in a lower elected office is even more unusual — you have to go back to the era of John Quincy Adams (in the White House from 1825 to 1829) and Andrew Johnson (1865 to 1869) to find examples of former U.S. presidents who headed to Congress after the White House.
Facing questioning from an opposition politician who asked whether she was “cutting and running” from Brexit woes, May told Parliament in June that she would “indeed be staying here as I will continue to be the member of Parliament for my constituency.”
Indeed, not only is she out campaigning for herself, but she has also expressed support for the Brexit deal of successor Boris Johnson and is making appearances to prop up fellow Conservatives in tight races.
That’s not the way this always goes.
May’s immediate predecessor, David Cameron, resigned as prime minister after he ended up on the losing side in the 2016 Brexit vote. Though he initially said he would stay on in Parliament, he announced only a few months later that he would stand down as a member of Parliament for the Oxfordshire seat of Witney.
John Major, prime minister from 1990 to 1997, and Gordon Brown, premier from 2007 to 2010, stayed in Parliament for a term after losing their government’s majority. Neither campaigned for the subsequent election like May did, instead stepping down ahead of their first election in post-premier life.
To find a British prime minister who did what May did, you have to go back past Margaret Thatcher, who stepped down as prime minister in 1990 and left Parliament ahead of the 1992 election.
Some pre-Thatcher prime ministers went on to have remarkably productive post-Downing Street careers in Parliament. Edward Heath remained in Parliament for 27 years after losing power, retiring only in 2001. Though he was a member of Thatcher’s Conservative Party, he became a prominent critic of her.
Alec Douglas-Home was prime minister for only a year until 1964 but stayed on in the House of Commons and later became foreign secretary. And, of course, there was Winston Churchill, who stayed in Parliament for six years after his first term as prime minister ended in 1945 and became prime minister again from 1951 to 1955. Despite strokes, he did not leave his parliamentary seat until 1964.
There’s nothing stopping prime ministers from lingering in Parliament. Britain’s political system makes them both a member of Parliament and head of government while prime minister: Johnson is not only leading a national fight to form a majority government but is also engaged in a relatively close local campaign to keep his own seat in Uxbridge from a young challenger.
May’s seat, by comparison, is considered ultrasafe for the Conservatives — despite her numerous and varied Brexit woes, she won with over 64 percent of the vote in the last election, in 2017.