They used to be MPs, senior partners and surgeons, expert at dealing with pressure. So how do those who once had top jobs adjust to life in the slow lane?
Leaving a top position can be tough. Your diary clears, your retinue of staff vaporises. Suddenly, no one is listening any more. Ego, hubris, whatever you call it, as we rise to positions of power, we too often come to “believe our own hype”. The inevitable fall can be bruising.
This is especially true if you are an MP. Until June this year, Neil Carmichael was Conservative MP for Stroud and chair of the education select committee. Losing his seat after the surprise election called by Theresa May in April “came as a shock”. “It’s brutal,” says Carmichael, 56. Within a week, he had to clear his office and fire his staff. “I am still at sea,” he admits as we sit in a corridor of the government offices at Portcullis House, Westminster. To get in here, Carmichael had to pull out his new card with “Ex-MP” emblazoned across it. It got us through security, but while we talk, Carmichael is greeted by a succession of serving MPs who peer compassionately from the other side of the fence. Justine Greening makes noises about having a drink; Meg Hillier sympathises about the lack of support for those spat out of power.
Neil Carmichael is still struggling to adjust after losing his seat as Conservative MP for Stroud.
First on Carmichael’s to-do list is finding a new job and keeping his family fed. “I also want to make sure that what I stand for doesn’t get forgotten.” He feels immensely frustrated that he can’t complete his “unfinished business” at the education select committee, such as improving academies and monitoring the impact of Brexit, about which he, as a remainer, worries. He rattles off a list of his achievements. His influence has vanished, but his drive remains. He intends to stand again.
Carmichael has a farm and woodland in Northumberland. But for the time being he drives his red tractor across his moderately sized garden in Stroud; it otherwise sits underemployed, rather like its owner. Carmichael suddenly has no particular place to go. “I found myself getting up at the same time as I used to without necessarily needing to,” he says. “I’ve found it emotionally quite testing. I’ve learned a little bit about myself, because I discovered that perhaps I overlooked a lot of things I shouldn’t have overlooked – such as my relationship with others outside politics.” He twists in his chair, looking mournful. “You lose sight of what’s actually important to you in your own personal life, and that’s what I did.” A “personal relationship” has taken the toll, he says, declining to specify further. It’s clear that Carmichael has suffered more than one loss in the election. Thankfully his three children were “an incredible support when I lost, and I was really quite moved by that”. Much as we are defined by what we do, it’s how we define ourselves that matters, and that takes some realignment. “I lost the election,” a chastened Carmichael says, “so I have to think about my own person, my own role and a different purpose.”
“There’s nothing as ex as an ex-MP,” says a woman at the Association of Former Members of Parliament. But listening to Carmichael, the hardest lesson may not be dealing with the ignobility conferred by your newfound lack of status, the really tough bit is dealing with your newfound sense of self. If you hadn’t already realised it, you soon discover just how much your work and your identity are entwined.
Estelle Morris is one who knows. She resigned from her post as secretary of state for education in 2002. Although this was her decision, it was still painful. She felt shut out of the club; her once packed diary was now empty. “It was like a bereavement,” she says. “It was in stages. To begin with, you’re in shock. It diminishes your feeling of self and you just have to get on with it.”
When she resigned as a cabinet minister, Morris said with remarkable honesty: “I just do not think I’m as good at it as I was at my other job.” She wishes now that she had remained minister of state for schools, where she had less power but was able to get the real work done. More power meant less control. “There’s your relationship with the education system and managing that – what I call the real job – then there’s the other job, managing the politics of it; Whitehall, Downing Street and the political media.” It was the “other job” that Morris hated, along with unwanted press intrusion. “I had a choice. You don’t have to live with it.” So she left.
“What you don’t realise is that you’ve got to pick up your sense of self afterwards, and that’s a really big issue. Eventually, after many years, you get to a sense of equilibrium.” Now, Morris sometimes feels she should have stuck it out, for the sake of the teachers. “I should have been able in my mind to shrink it down to the importance it was, and I found that quite difficult to do. That was sapping my confidence. But what I say is that if I could do the job again, I’d do it differently and survive.”
Adapting to life outside politics was surprisingly hard, Morris says. “I’ll tell you a silly thing: it was a long time before I walked in front of the Department of Education. Instead, I’d do circuitous routes. I had not come to terms with leaving, and I think that’s going back to your ego bit – this is the building I used to go in and do things. Now I walk past and would have to go through security.”
Work is her life, she says, and she still loves politics. She was brought up in a working-class political household; her father was also an MP. She is close to her sister and two nieces, but otherwise lives alone (something the press wouldn’t let go of all those years ago). “I’m not bad alone. I’m only all right because I’m very busy.” Now 65, she works with educational projects, charities and sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Morris of Yardley. “I love that, a day where you’ve moved quickly and there’s that sense of momentum.”
But she still recalls the “fripperies” that accompanied her cabinet position: never pushing a button in a lift; two-minute, between-floors conversations; or meetings scheduled for car journeys. “There is a danger that people can think, ‘This is all about me.’ The machine makes you feel different.”
As Morris did all those years ago, John Fotheringham, 60, has spent the last two years trying to find out who he is when he’s no longer in a position of power. As a senior partner at Deloitte, he managed the big accounts, HMRC and DWP. This meant he was away working for most of the week, meeting his wife and family at weekends or during holidays. “My balance has definitely shifted,” he says. “I was what I did five days a week.” His wife, he says wryly, is “much more interested in me when I’m not at home”.
Fotheringham was the traditional breadwinner. In this respect, he overachieved. “We were incredibly well paid,” he says over a beer in a smart pub near his bridge club. Six figures? “Seven.” I pause to sip my orange juice. “You’re encouraged not to be particularly visible, but you make a lot of money and you have a lot of influence over a lot of things. You’re frequently paid massively more than the clients you’re advising.” Fotheringham appears affable, but admits having a senior position can make a person hardnosed. “You become much more spiky and ruthless about what you do with your time.”
When he retired, businessman John Fotheringham had no outside interests with which to fill his time.
Partners at Deloitte are required to retire by 62; Fotheringham bowed out at 58. He hadn’t prepared for life after. He had no interests and far too much time. While at work, he felt valued and competent; at home, he feels adrift in his wife’s world, left discussing the minutiae of domestic life. Previously, “We’d only talk about things that were A or B priority, whereas now you get stuck into things like the garden, the shopping and the rest of it.” Fotheringham is not a C-priority man. “I feel like this new kid on the block in this domestic environment. Feeling like an incompetent at home – it’s a strange shift. The only place where I’m vaguely competent is in the garden. When I was at home [before retirement], it was the king returning before he went away again. It’s very levelling – ie diminishing.”
During the first year of retirement, he threw himself into finding his father a suitable care home and establishing him there. He describes this as a “project”, and when his father died, Fotheringham says, “suddenly I felt I’d fallen off this cliff. That was when I felt the most unsettling/depressing.” The depression deepened, as did his drinking. “I didn’t feel I was achieving anything constructive. I was used to a set of things where you felt you’d done a lot and helped a lot of people, and when you took that away, you just felt like you weren’t someone, worthless.” He enrolled for a contemporary art appreciation course at City Lit, and is keen to channel his considerable energies (“50% spare capacity”) into a new project.
One such project is his relationship with his wife. Reflecting on what went wrong when he retired, he counsels younger people not to become obsessed with work and to develop constructive hobbies; in short, spread their identity across a larger field. He used to write poetry on the train to work, he says. “You could lose yourself completely, and at the end of it, you had a relatively good, short poem.” So why not write now? “You need a bit of angst to write poetry, and at that time I did.”
Not everyone flounders when their power ebbs away. Nicholas Phillips, 79, steadily worked his way up the legal ladder, never applying for positions, always accepting invitations, eventually becoming lord chief justice and, finally, the inaugural president of the supreme court. No further ascendancy was possible. The next step became retirement, although the word doesn’t quite cover it; he still holds a variety of legal offices, which means he travels a lot. Maybe this, and his love of Dorset, where he spends much of his time, accounts for his healthy glow. He does not seem to be striving for anything more.
He sits, tanned and composed, in his beautiful north London home, clearly astonished at the opportunities he has had: “In a way, it’s quite hard to believe I have held these offices, having never really set out ambitiously to achieve them. Now that I’ve done all these things, I’m back, an ordinary person.” How does that feel? “A great relief. One of the things about my life in the law is that you can’t talk about your work. You have to be extremely careful in expressing opinions.”
Lawyer Nicholas Phillips took up outdoor swimming.
I discover that he swims every day, outside, throughout the year, and hear later that he marched the photographer five miles over steep cliffs to reach a secluded cove for a bracing dip before retiring to the pub in the Dorset village from which he takes his title, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers.
Seeing him so relaxed in his sitting room, I try, with some difficulty, to picture him at the supreme court presiding over the most intractable cases. He was tested to his limits when he was nominated to conduct the BSE inquiry, and individuals’ entire futures and livelihoods rested on his interpretation of events. “I found I couldn’t sleep and was waking early. I tried hypnosis, but it didn’t work. I can understand people who break down under stress, because I reckon I came quite close to it.”
Phillips cites his best skill as “dispassionate analysis, which is what being a judge or a lawyer is all about. That is a good thing and a bad thing: sometimes people get annoyed with you, because you aren’t expressing passion; you’re coldly analysing a situation they feel passionate about.” He chooses his words carefully. “Sometimes, my family would prefer me to get a little bit more passionate. I’m still quite a reserved person.”
He is one of those rare people who really seem unaltered by their position. “I think I’ve got fairly broad shoulders,” he says, “I’ve been happy in my skin. I think that’s just personality.”
Choosing to leave a high-powered job earlier in your career is quite a different matter, however. Farhana Safa, 35, was an eye surgeon, trained at Moorfields and on her way to the top, a practising registrar not long to become a consultant. Her path was defined, her status secure, her parents delighted. They had arrived as immigrants from Bangladesh and struggled, taking any job and living on council estates while they started a family. It was to much disbelief that Safa announced she was going to quit her job, and for what? She didn’t even know.
“I felt like an idiot,” she says. When people asked why she was leaving, all she could say was, “I feel like I could be very good at something else. I just don’t know what.” She knew only that it had to be more creative. Her decision was “excruciatingly difficult on all sorts of levels: giving up the stability of your job, giving up your income, being able to say that’s what you do. I felt like I was changing my name, because your job really becomes a part of you. I felt like I was a failure to admit I wanted to leave. I felt absolutely lost, like I was a nobody.”
Farhana Safa quit a career as a high-flying eye surgeon to train as a car designer.
Safa signed herself up for a different course every day of the week: singing, shoe design, creative writing, photography, piano, samurai swordsmanship. After six months of liberation, she panicked and decided to think logically: what did she love? Cars. “I thought, ‘That’s it! That’s what I’m going to do!’” With no design background, she worked harder than she’d ever worked, drawing day and night, to secure a place on an MA at the Royal College of Art in vehicle design. “Being an underdog is quite nice, because nobody expects anything of you.”
Meanwhile, she enrolled with casting agencies and won a part as a nurse in Doctor Strange, teaching Benedict Cumberbatch how to fake surgery. Gradually, she forged a new identity, landing an internship and then a job with Land Rover, where she is now employed as a car designer. It’s a world where, as an Asian woman, she stands out. “There are very few women in positions of authority and influence in this industry, so that’s where I’d like to work myself up to.” Status still matters to Safa, but she feels this time she’s on the right ladder. This doesn’t mean she can relax, though. “I am anxious every single day. Because I feel like, can I prove myself, am I good enough?”
We sit in her minimalist London flat, a futuristic model of a car at its centre – her degree show piece. Safa managed to convince a car firm to spend time and money on moulding liquid metal to her design. She has performed alchemy in many ways, not least on herself. A while ago, she bumped into an old colleague. “I almost felt like I didn’t recognise myself. I was trying to think of who he thought I was. I have changed so much in these last couple of years.”
Gill Sewell who worked for local government.
Leaving a top position necessitates change, in both identity and lifestyle. For most of her life, Gill Sewell, 57, had been the family breadwinner. She and her husband, Simon Risley, had three daughters – now 18, 21 and 22 – and Simon worked full time, largely from home, before going part time and eventually retiring. The family dynamic changed sharply when Sewell took voluntary redundancy from her job as assistant director of children’s services at Hammersmith & Fulham council in July 2012. “It was a drastic change in the way I lived,” she says. “I buy much more secondhand and things like that, but all the things that have changed have felt like more enriching changes, where my life feels more grounded, more real. I’m feeding my ego less.”
Until then, she had a six-figure salary, a staff of up to 700 and a budget of £25m. “I was a bit of a terrier. I was driven and worked long hours. That was the sort of Gill I was.” But she became disheartened with budget cuts and increasingly felt she couldn’t “make a difference”. The services she’d started 10 years earlier she now had to close; the people she’d employed, she had to make redundant. Power in and of itself is neither good nor bad, she says; it’s how you use it. She does admit, though, that she got a bit too used to people saying yes to her because of her position. “That’s never healthy for anyone. I had to learn to change my behaviours.”
Sewell became a Quaker at the age of 23, and that has served as a great leveller. In the Quaker church, voluntary roles are rotated. “There isn’t an elevation,” Sewell says: everyone is equal. Coming from local government, she had to make a conscious effort to sit and listen in meetings, rather than “push an agenda”.
Shortly after she left her job, Sewell was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She took a year off, forced to lie on the sofa at home. “I’d been a pivot, I earned all the money, I paid all the bills, and that shifted. I then became an at-home mother, albeit on the sofa feeling sick. I’ve had to learn to be a different Gill, even in the home context.” She recovered and took on a full-time job with the Quakers only to discover, less than two months in, that she had breast cancer. “That was when I learned to live more comfortably with the softer side of myself, to live with the vulnerability, with that identity of being a patient.” She was astounded by the kindness and generosity shown to her when she was unwell. “Some of them were people I made redundant. I went out and had tea with them during my recovery.”
She is back working for the Quakers now. Her cancer is in remission. “I’ve looked death in the face several times and I’m just going to ignore it now. I’ve realised that the best way of changing anything is by changing myself.”