Composite showing the Obama mic drop from his last Press Correspondents' Dinner at the White House and Theresa May's resignation speech outside 10 Downing StreetYouTube / The Obama White House / Getty

The most memorable political goodbyes

When you’re a politician, saying farewell is a moment you don’t want to mess up

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After almost three years as prime minister, last week Theresa May announced her resignation.

The Prime Minister will step down as Conservative Party leader on 7 June - an announcement that came just ahead of her party's disastrous performance in the European elections where they came in fifth place - setting the stage for a fierce leadership contest.

"I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion as she walked away from the podium outside Number 10.

After noting that she was proud to have been the UK's second female prime minister she said of her departure: "I do so with no ill will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love."

For some it was seen as a 'defiant display', others, however, were less than impressed

So far, 11 candidates have put themselves forward to replace May, including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom. 

As she prepares to make her exit - along with long-time Liberal Democrat grandee Vince Cable who has also announced his impending resignation - will Theresa May take inspiration from the political leaders who came before her and how they chose to say goodbye?

In 2016, former PM David Cameron was famously caught humming to himself after announcing his resignation following the Brexit referendum result.

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Some guessed it was the theme to the West Wing, others noticed similarities to Winnie the Pooh and one listener even wondered if he was channelling Alan Partridge.

But Cameron’s former communications director, Craig Oliver, later claimed that it was actually just a case of nervous humming.

“I asked the PM what the tune was, and he said there wasn’t really one,” Oliver told BBC Radio 4. “He was just nervous that someone wasn’t going to re-open the door. There was a very, very pregnant pause before someone opened the door and he thought he might be stranded there.”

Tony Blair, meanwhile, gave a memorable farewell address in June 2007, which led to a historic breach of long-standing rules in the House of Commons.

"I have never pretended to be the greatest House of Commons man but I can pay the house the greatest compliment I can by saying that from the first until the last I have never stopped fearing it,” the PM said.

“The tingling apprehension I felt at three minutes to 12 today I felt as much 10 years ago and every bit as acute. It is in that fear that respect is retained.

"I wish everyone, friend or foe, well and that's that, the end," Blair concluded, before the House burst into an unprecedented standing ovation from all sides. This came despite the shadow of the second Iraq war hanging over the end of his premiership.

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Applause is officially banned in the House of Commons, with the rules set out in the parliamentary etiquette bible, Erskine May: "Members must not disturb a Member who is speaking by hissing, chanting, clapping, booing, exclamations or other interruption."

This time, though, the then Speaker Michael Martin - whose job it is to keep order - didn’t do anything to stop the cheers.

Nearly 30 years earlier, another long-serving prime minister finally called it quits: Margaret Thatcher.

With tears in her eyes, the Conservative party’s first female leader gave a speech in the House of Commons that looked back at her time in office and attacked her Labour enemies.

"I'm enjoying this!" she said from the despatch box after facing down heckles from the opposition.

“Nothing became Margaret Thatcher's prime ministership as her leaving of it,” wrote The Guardian’s Andrew Rawnsley at the time about her performance. “The last big performance was a command one; a dying aria that played to a packed House.”

Labour MP and minister Tony Benn, in a BBC Radio 4 programme recalled how he recorded Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s farewell address to his cabinet in March 1976 around the Number 10 dining table, as the politicians tucked into a “marvellous” poached salmon dinner.

Describing Harold Wilson’s speech as “boring,” Benn - to the laughter of the assembled politicians - livened up proceedings by reading a copy of Wilson’s obituary, which he’d been asked by the BBC to prepare years earlier.

“I won’t embarrass you by reading what the obituary said, except to say that I wouldn’t change a word of it and it was very nice,” Benn told Wilson, while his fellow MPs cheered their appreciation.

In 1955, Winston Churchill gave his last great speech to the House of Commons. Which according to reports, was delivered to an almost entirely silent chamber.

This ‘Never Despair’ speech set out his concerns over the destructive power of the newly developed atom bomb in the context of the Cold War - but it ended with the war-time leader’s archetypal optimistic tone:

“The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow-men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.” 

Over in the United States, political goodbyes are conducted with equal amounts of emotion and intrigue, and, sometimes, a sprinkle of showmanship.

It’s customary for US presidents to make a farewell address to the nation, dating all the way back to George Washington who warned that partisanship could lead to “ruins of public liberty.”

Richard Nixon gave a dramatic farewell address in August 1974, announcing his resignation in disgrace following the Watergate scandal.

"By taking this action," he said in a television address from the Oval Office, "I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America."

And in 2017, outgoing US leader Barack Obama welled up with emotion as he gave his final address as president, wiping away tears as he paid tribute to his wife Michelle.

“You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor,” Obama said. “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model,” he said.

No political goodbye, though, can top Obama’s final speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2016 when he delivered the ultimate send-off: his iconic mic drop. “Obama, out.”

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