Tears, tantrums & flower-arranging - prime ministers in their darkest hours

How do prime ministers cope in their darkest hours? I have been privileged to meet every British prime minister since Sir Anthony Eden. His term in office (1955-57) was even briefer than Theresa May’s.

Mrs May has wanted to be prime minister since she was a teenager.  Now she is giving up ‘the job I love’, admitting that in the chief endeavour of her premiership – securing Brexit – she has failed.   These last few days have represented her ‘darkest hour’, following on from a succession of dark days and nights that have dogged her since her fateful decision to call a general election just two years ago.

 How has she coped?  How is she coping now?

 I happened to have lunch with Mrs May last Tuesday.  She had just come from a torrid cabinet meeting and she was just off to make the speech at Charing Cross that would trigger her downfall, but for the hour I was with her you would not have known that anything was amiss at all.  She appeared totally relaxed, friendly, chatty, not in the least distracted.  Extraordinary, under the circumstances. 

I first encountered Mrs May in 1992, when we both stood for parliament for the first time.  I liked her then.  I like her now.  Waiting for her arrival on Tuesday I asked another of the lunch guests (a female parliamentary colleague of the PM’s) how long they had been friends.  ‘We aren’t friends,’ she said, tartly.  ‘She doesn’t have friends.  I’m not sure she’s human.  Sometimes I think she’s an alien.  Or a Russian spy.’

 She is neither, of course, but she is an only child, married to an only child, and it seems that she and her husband confide in one another and possibly no one else.  Apart from God, of course.  The Mays go to church every Sunday, not simply out of habit or as a weekly photo opportunity, but because their faith matters to them.  In her darkest moments, I suspect Mrs May finds consolation in prayer.

 By surviving as prime minister beyond next Thursday, she has at least achieved one of her goals: Mrs May’s term in office will have lasted longer than that of Gordon Brown (2007-10), another three-year premier whose time in the job is generally characterised as a failure.  How did Brown cope when the going got tough?  With others he would do what Mrs May never does: have a temper tantrum and throw his papers on the floor.  But in his darkest hours, all on his own, Brown would chew his fingernails to the quick - and (wait for it) read poetry.  People find this hard to believe, but I was once invited to an evening of poetry readings in Downing Street, hosted by Gordon Brown, at which he read Burns and Tennyson out loud to us and spoke movingly about the consoling and restorative power of poetry.

 In 1995, when I was an MP, I found myself in the Members’ Dining Room at the House of Commons sitting next to John Major (1990-97) on what might have been his last night as prime minister.  He had put himself up for re-election as Conservative Party leader and the votes weren’t yet in.  He looked bleak, pasty-faced and weary. 

‘I think it’s going pretty well,’ I said, trying to cheer him up.

‘Do you?’  He shook his head.  ‘I just don’t know.  The Sun, Times, Telegraph, they’re all saying I should go.  Even the Daily Mail is against me.’

 Silence fell.  He looked at his plate.  I tried to make conversation.  He was monosyllabic.  I tried some more.  Silence fell again. I thought, ‘Poor sod, this could be his last night as prime minister and he’s spending it with me, like this!’   And then in came Peter Brooke MP, former Northern Ireland Secretary, and sat down beside me.  He looked across at the PM and said he had just finished reading an article about a certain Surrey cricketer whose heyday was in the 1930s.  John Major brightened at once.  Brooke continued, describing some particularly memorable match from the glorious summer of ‘37, and within a minute the pall that had engulfed the table lifted and Peter and the PM talked cricket - talked 1930s cricket! - in animated, fascinated, happy detail.   

Famously, on the day he lost the 1997 general election, John Major went off to watch the cricket.  In adversity, the prime ministers who have a hinterland are blessed.  I knew Ted Heath (prime minister, 1970-74) quite well and, while he was consumed by his contempt for Margaret Thatcher who succeeded him as Conservative leader, he was both distracted and consoled in adversity by the passions that absorbed him: sailing yachts and conducting orchestras.

Heath also had something that, I think, Mrs May lacks: a network of other international statesmen who offered him the hand of friendship when he felt his own party had betrayed him.  He was particularly proud to call himself a friend of Fidel Castro.  If ever you went to his beautiful house in the close of Salisbury Cathedral, Ted would show off the orchids in the garden.  ‘Fidel sent me those,’ he’d say, with pride, shoulders gently heaving.  After dinner, he would offer you a cigar.  ‘Fidel gave them to me for Christmas.’

 When you cease to be prime minister, it is only other leaders who know exactly how it feels.  John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron were good at forming proper friendships with their international peers during their terms in office.  Mrs May, it seems, less so.

There appeared to be tears in the prime minister’s eyes as she arrived back in Downing Street on Wednesday night after another lonely marathon session at the dispatch box and another hint of tears at the end of her dignified resignation statement on Friday.  When Mrs Thatcher (1979-90) left Downing Street for the final time there were certainly tears in hers.  In office, Thatcher seemed to thrive on stress.  Out of office, she was lost.  As prime minister, towards the end of her eleven years in Downing Street, colleagues found her increasingly impatient and hectoring, but she coped with the difficult times by simply immersing herself in her paperwork and fussing (in a good way) around family and friends – making the sandwiches, brewing the tea, pouring the drinks, picking the stray thread off your jacket.  To the end, she was a mother-hen.  My wife and I saw her quite often during her retirement and realised that, without politics, she had no real interests or hobbies to fall back on, and, without Denis, she had nothing at all.

I recall meeting up with Lady Thatcher in South Africa where she had gone to holiday with her son, Mark.  She was being driven around looking for things to do and people to meet.  There were no members of the South African government available that day, so she was delighted to see me, not because it was me, but because we had both been MPs and she could talk politics.  That’s all she wanted to do.

We know that Thatcher’s hero, Winston Churchill, coped with his ‘black dog’ days and with the nation’s darkest hours by drinking a good deal, and painting, and brick-laying.  He also spent a lot of time in bed.

‘I am a great believer in bed,’ said Henry Campbell-Bannerman, whose term as prime minister (1905-08) was even briefer than Mrs May’s is set to be.  At moments of crisis, Campbell-Bannerman retreated between the sheets.  Keeping ‘constantly horizontal’, he claimed, ensured that ‘the heart and everything else go slower’.  ‘It is how I survive,’ he said.  His predecessor as prime minister, Arthur Balfour (another three-year man, 1902-05), turned to reading cowboy stories and to playing games of patience in times of trial.  For hours on end, he would sit alone at a card table at Number Ten, his wife at a separate card table beside him.  Patience, he maintained, had got him through the worst moments of the Boer War. 

When, as a schoolboy, I interviewed Sir Alec Douglas-Home (who barely managed a year as PM, 1963-64), he told me that in his ‘darkest moments’ he always turned to flower-arranging.  ‘There is nothing more soothing,’ he said.  ‘Or satisfying, come to that.’

Douglas-Home’s successor, Harold Wilson (twice prime minister, 1964-70 and 1974-76), told me that he coped with stress by sucking on his pipe, drinking a tumbler of whisky and singing his favourite bits of Gilbert & Sullivan. (He had a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan by heart.)  

I once asked Harold Macmillan (1957-63) if it was true that as prime minister he found time to read the novels Anthony Trollope in Downing Street.  ‘Absolutely,’ he said, ‘there’s no crisis that can’t be helped by an hour or two of calm spent reading Trollope.’  The Last Chronicle of Barset was his favourite.

‘And what do you read when there isn’t a crisis?’ I asked him.

‘Jane Austen,’ he said, before adding, with a soft chuckle, ‘but, of course, there is always a crisis.’ 

I wish Mrs May all the best in coping with hers.


Gyles Brandreth