They used to be somebody, and it seems they aren’t quite sure how to be nobodies again just yet. David Cameron and George Osborne killed three hours on Thursday drinking coffee in a Notting Hill cafe, but didn’t look as if they were enjoying their newfound freedom all that much. Michael Gove was snapped wandering morosely through a bookshop, presumably having realised he’ll have a lot more time for reading now.
The vacuum left by the sudden withdrawal of power will be filled eventually, of course. All newly sacked ministers – and Cameron has sacked enough to know – have the faint air at first of zoo animals released back into the wild, only to realise they’ve forgotten how to hunt. The instinct usually returns.
But the twist for what remains of the Notting Hill set isn’t just the fall from grace. It’s the people to whom power has been lost, the people they might once have passed in corridors without a second thought; the ones they dismissed as headbangers always ranting on about Europe, the people they thought they’d put out to pasture years ago. Overnight the cool kids are gone, replaced in some cases by people old enough to be their parents.
This time last year who’d have predicted a second coming for David Davis, whose government career peaked somewhere back in the mid-90s? Yet at 67 he’s taking on the most fiendish job in government, negotiating Brexit. New work and pensions secretary Damian Green, an old friend of Theresa May’s since their university days and a former minister under her at the Home Office, was retired to the backbenches two summers ago in a cull of older male ministers, but has now been catapulted back into a crucial role.
Chancellor Philip Hammond, leader of the Commons David Lidington and defence secretary Michael Fallon are all in their 60s, an age when every reshuffle is viewed with trepidation; but under a prime minister who will be 60 herself this autumn it’s the young Turks heading for the door and greyer ones moving up.
You may not know the names, but you probably know the type. Middle managers in their 50s, who never did much wrong but were let go in the last redundancy round or are no longer considered for promotion because – well, there’s always someone younger and more exciting snapping at their heels. Decent sorts, reliable and knowledgeable and appreciated by their juniors, but intensely aware that suddenly everyone around them is half their age and the IT guys are explaining the new computer system very slowly.
So how sweet it must feel to MPs of May’s generation – too often made to feel by some of the more impatient Cameroons that they’d had their chance and blown it. New prime ministers often skip a generation to stamp their own mark on a party, but unusually May has skipped backwards rather than forwards, trawling in unfashionable places for overlooked judgment and experience.
For all the outrage about Boris Johnson’s comeback as foreign secretary, what springs to mind looking down the list of cabinet attendees is how lonely he may feel. The overall vibe is less posh, more rightwing, less London-centric – were she ever forced from power, it’s impossible to imagine May chillaxing over a flat white in Café Lisboa – and distinctly baby boomer.
Where the Notting Hill set shared school runs, this lot have grown-up children trying to establish themselves in an uncertain job market, and will come together for 60th birthday parties and significant wedding anniversaries, not wild parties in Chipping Norton.
May has good reasons, of course, for picking a cabinet with a long political memory. The echoes of the John Major era are clear – a dangerously thin majority, a looming war with Brussels, a hardcore of backbench Eurosceptics waiting to scream betrayal at every turn – that it makes sense to keep veterans of that era close.
(Green started out as an adviser to Major, and Davis was his minister for Europe).
Nevertheless, the generational shift feels alarming to some younger Tories. Some see in the talk of social mobility a possible revival of hoary old arguments about grammar schools that Cameron thought he’d killed off.
Others are already worried about where all the vaguely retro-sounding talk of “industrial strategy” (a phrase banned from ministerial speeches under the last chancellor for sounding too 1970s and interventionist) fits into a world turned upside down by Google and Uber. Hard to see the woman who once observed that “the creative winds of destruction don’t feel quite so exhilarating when they’re sweeping past your factory gates” embracing tech giants as uncritically as the tech junkie Osborne. But while she’s clearly tapping into a powerful feeling that things are changing too fast and at too great a cost, what if there’s an economic price to be paid for holding back the tide?
It’s sheer ageism, of course, to think an older cabinet must inevitably be a backwards-looking one or set in its ways; that only the young can be progressive. But the sense of ageing populations moving towards governments they can recognise in the mirror, for good or ill, is striking.
For now at least, May will face a 67-year-old Labour leader, after years when the Commons was gripped by a cult of youth. America is choosing between 68-year-old Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, two years her senior. Those rising to prominence now are children of the anxious postwar years, whose political awakening came in an age of conflict and crisis: three-day weeks and power cuts, the oil price shock and the collapse of sterling.
Sometimes organisations don’t realise what has been lost from the collective memory until they need it – even if all that’s on offer is the grim stoicism of those who have seen it all before.