William Goldman famously said about Hollywood – ‘Nobody knows anything’.
That quotation could easily be applied to British politics following the vote to leave the European Union.
And the most visible sign of the post-Brexit political upheaval is the never-ending stream of resignations.
It seems barely half a day has gone by without someone else deciding that they don’t fancy their chances in the increasingly febrile world of Westminster politics as the establishment reels from a vote they didn’t expect and certainly didn’t want.
Within hours of the referendum result, David Cameron was resigning outside Downing Street. Barely 13 months after an impressive General Election win his political career appeared to be over.
When watching Cameron’s speech I was reminded of Enoch Powell’s maxim – ‘all political lives….end in failure’. (this is misquoted a lot, you can find the original at the end of Powell’s Economist obit here).
But the PM appeared to start something of a resignation orgy, it was followed by most of the Shadow Cabinet, followed by Boris (who you could argue withdrew rather than resigned), followed by the England football manager, followed by Farage, and maybe, although this looks increasingly unlikely at time of writing, by Jeremy Corbyn.
I’m interested not in the personalities, but in what happens after that final letter or speech. How do once powerful people cope with life after politics – life after office?
In some cases, the loss of the big job is the start of a downward spiral into ill health and ultimately death.
There’s a stark reminder of this at the end of HBO’s excellent dramatisation of LBJ’s first two years in office All The Way when we’re reminded that Johnson didn’t seek the nomination in 1968 and died of a heart attack less than five years later – worn out by a brutal term and a half at the White House.
A couple of generations earlier, Neville Chamberlain lasted even less time after office – dead of bowel cancer just months after he resigned as Prime Minister in 1940, his reputation forever tarnished by Munich.
These are extreme examples, most leaders go on to live long, productive and seemingly happy lives after they find themselves back on civvy street – being gently shuttled between continents via business class, happy to talk about past triumphs and failures on what Americans call the ‘rubber chicken circuit’.
Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, Major and Blair, are regulars – along with others who played less of a starring role in recent geo-politics, ever heard of Guy Verhofstadt for example?
David Cameron is probably lining up speaking options as I write.
But life post power does take some adjusting to. Carol Thatcher tells the story of how, after Downing Street, her Mum used to reach for the phone while watching a big crisis unfolding on TV, only to realise that she had no power to wield any more. There was no-one to call.
It is certainly harder to forge a strong reputation after office, particularly if – like Tony Blair – the repercussions of your mistakes continue to worsen your reputation.
But a few manage to enhance their standing. Jimmy Carter was a below average President, but somehow transformed into a global elder statesman after leaving the White House.
Perhaps Powell was wrong and political lives don’t have to end in failure after all.