View from the Street: Spitting image

@stu7tay

View from the Street: Spitting image

Last month marked the centenary of the birth of John F Kennedy. More than 50 years on from his assassination, and despite only serving in the Oval Office for 1,037 days – the shortest tenure of all but six presidents – his legacy lives on as a symbol of purpose and hope.

In 1961, JFK contemplated what he might do once he left the White House, saying: “Whether I serve one or two terms in the Presidency, I will find myself at the end of that period at what might be called the awkward age - too old to begin a new career and too young to write my memoirs."

That fateful day in Dallas robbed Kennedy of the chance for his term as commander-in-chief to come to a constitutional end, meaning we will never know how he may have spent his years away from the Oval Office and whether it would have had an effect on how we think about him now. But it made me ponder: what do the politicians of today do when they stop walking the corridors of power, and how will that make history look upon them?

Many have travelled conventional routes: touring the lucrative speech circuit, setting up consultancies or establishing charitable foundations. Though popular, they are not risk-free ventures. Tony Blair - who marked a decade out of office this week - gave up a host of his commercial enterprises shortly before returning to the political debate to argue vehemently for a Remain vote in the EU referendum. While rumours abound that he is to return to frontline politics, the man renowned for understanding the country’s mood perhaps suspects that the public will not look too kindly on his continued association with such undertakings.

More recently out of office, Barack Obama faces a similar predicament. He was criticised for accepting half a million dollars to deliver a speech to the “fat cat” bankers he promised to rein in when elected. As well as launching a foundation aimed at elevating a new generation of political leaders in America, he will be conscious of cementing his legacy as the man who embodied change when he sits down to pen the most expensive memoir in history.

Others have used the time out of office to dedicate their efforts to less predictable endeavours. George Osborne has found a way to continue to ‘splash’ his socially liberal conservatism agenda as editor of the Evening Standard, a role currently causing Theresa May considerable grief.

When it comes to rejuvenating a personal image after politics, there is no better example than that of the two Labour Eds: Miliband and Balls. In May 2015 they were on the cusp of leading the next government, occupying 10 and 11 Downing Street respectively. Labour lost the election, delivering a damming verdict on the electability of the pair.

Nowadays you are more likely to find Miliband on the sofa of Channel 4 comedy The Last Leg than the green benches of the House of Commons. You will also hear his adenoidal voice - often derided during his time as leader of the opposition -  on Radio 2, even talking toilets with listeners.

For Balls, he waltzed into the hearts of the British public on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, so much so in fact that he has avoided any blame for single-handedly prolonging the regrettable Gangnam Style craze.  

For both, these ventures provided them a platform, or dancefloor if you prefer, to exhibit an effervescent demeanour and personality that contrasts with the uptight reputation they gained in politics, and the public reacted favourably. A return to Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet has been mooted for Miliband, while public sentiment towards a return for Balls shows that he found his political resurrection on prime-time television. If only the Harvard educated, former chief economic adviser to the Treasury knew that all it would take was dressing up as The Mask for him to be taken seriously as a candidate to revive Britain’s economic fortunes.

But I guess that’s a lesson for our lawmakers who are looking to protect, enhance, or indeed repair their image after politics. In an unsettling world, where we find ourselves with a reality TV star as the leader of the free world, it’s been shown that people find leaders in the unlikeliest of places. They have respect for those able to capture the national tone, say the things that they want to hear, and not afraid to laugh at themselves (perhaps there’s less evidence to explain the rise of Trump on this point). There’s no lifelong veneer to protect a legacy, no treatment to cure a bruised reputation, but by being yourself you’re setting off on the right road.

 

Stuart Taylor is a Senior Associate at Charlotte Street Partners. He joined Charlotte Street Partners from the office of then Dunfermline MSP, Cara Hilton, Labour’s former Shadow Minister for Children and Young People, for whom he led on media work.

Stuart is a graduate of Cardiff University, completing his MA in Political Communication in 2015, during which time he undertook communications projects for the Federation of Small Businesses and was a member of the broadcast team at Sky News as part of its UK General Election coverage. He can be contacted at stuart.taylor@charlottestpartners.co.uk