Voices: There’s a reason women like Jacinda Ardern leave politics – and it’s not as simple as ‘having kids’

Voices: There’s a reason women like Jacinda Ardern leave politics – and it’s not as simple as ‘having kids’

“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.” So said Jacinda Ardern when she resigned as prime minister of New Zealand.

It’s a tough call, knowing when to leave a job you love. Especially one that’s in the public eye – and in the full knowledge that such a decision will be scrutinised and written up by people who have never sat behind the desk or glimpsed behind the door; who don’t know its unique pressures or the personal constraints under which you are trying to deliver.

There’s also a particular ire that can be directed at a politician who chooses to leave on their own terms – denying opponents and voters the political theatre of a crushing election blow or an internal party putsch. Walking away from a surprise announcement with your head held high makes for a whole different public narrative from being ushered into the back of a vehicle, flashbulbs popping, after days of tortured speculation that the end is nigh.

Politics is a white-collar profession; it’s not physical in the way that working down a mine or labouring on a building site is physical, but it is punishing and it is attritional. Yes, in the high-pressure decisions, the long hours, the lack of sleep and the utter destruction of any sort of routine, but also in the fact that each election campaign, each big event or crisis that needs handling, leaves you with a little less energy and resilience. It all adds up.

Also – and this is little talked about – you can begin to lose yourself in the job; you can start to become a version of yourself that you like less and less.

When I stood down as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, I had been in post for nearly eight years. I’d had a baby nine months before. The prime minister had just changed and it was clear that the new one, Boris Johnson, would need to call a snap general election in the next few months to break the impasse at Westminster.

I had already led the Scottish party through two general elections, and I knew what they looked and felt like. It is two months of living out of a suitcase, leading the line, geeing everyone else up, making a hundred decisions a day, and working a hundred-hour week. Elections had always been my favourite bit of the job – I loved the energy and competition – but I suddenly found myself dreading this one, and I knew immediately that this was no way to lead. I had worked as hard as I could, doing the best that I could for as long as I could. But deep down, I knew I just didn’t have it in me any more. Better, I thought, to let someone else take over – someone with the drive and energy I’d once had.

Leading an opposition party in a devolved parliament is of a far lower order of magnitude than leading a nation state in a time of global crisis. Ardern is the best – indeed, only – judge of whether there’s enough left in the tank to keep going.

And, while plenty of journalists will question whether having children is ever really compatible with female political leadership (and they did with me, just as they are doing in New Zealand) – here’s the bit they miss. One of the things that gives anyone – women included – the ambition and drive to lead in the first place is professional pride in what they do. Having that inner standard they set themselves and continuously measure themselves against.

I knew I could no longer do the job to the level I once did, and ultimately, that’s why I chose to go. I suspect that professional pride is a big part of Ardern’s thinking, too.