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8 December 2022

The Tory exodus is a sign of a failing party – and system

Most Conservatives expect to lose the next election and neither opposition or fighting and losing one’s seat appeals.

By David Gauke

The news that Matt Hancock has become the latest Conservative MP (or, to put it more accurately, MP who was elected as a Conservative) is not going to stand in the next general election is one of the least surprising announcements of recent British politics.

It was probably inevitable following his decision to appear on a reality television programme while parliament was sitting. The House of Commons and West Suffolk managed to cope in his absence, but it was a decision that did not go down well, especially with his local party where there was the traditional East Anglian wariness of showing off (I speak as a son of Suffolk).

Hancock, as it happened, won over more viewers of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here than many expected. He is irrepressibly cheerful and energetic and, after two years in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, was willing and able to swallow anything. He now wants to “do things differently”; he has discovered “a whole new world of possibilities” that he is “excited to explore” involving “new ways… to communicate with people of all ages and of all backgrounds”. It sounds to me like he aspires to have a New Statesman column.

Hancock’s resignation will be viewed in the context of other planned retirements from parliament, particularly those of Conservatives. With boundary changes imminent, the party has sought to discover at an early stage those with no intention of sticking around so that existing MPs can be distributed to the new, altered constituencies with the minimum of fuss and bother.

The spike in announcements by Conservative MPs has, naturally enough, attracted attention and raises the question of Tory morale but, in terms of sheer numbers, there is nothing yet particularly exceptional. We might normally expect to see 30 to 40 retirements for one reason or another. So far only 14 Conservative MPs (plus Hancock) have announced that they are standing down.

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Most MPs, however, are unwilling to make their announcements this early, with the parliament likely to run until October 2024. If there is even a small chance of wanting to fight the next election (which might be dependent on a dramatic and unlikely Conservative revival in the opinion polls), there is little incentive to reach an early decision. Even some who have concluded that they have fought their last general election may hold off from letting it be known, fearing that they would be seen as lame ducks both in the Commons and in the constituency. In other words, there will be plenty more announcements to come.

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What has been interesting is that some of the retirees have been remarkably young. Chloe Smith is 40; William Wragg 34; Dehenna Davison just 29. Sajid Javid, 53, holds a safe seat and must have been close to becoming chancellor when Kwasi Kwarteng was sacked in October.

Javid, like Hancock, 44, was always ambitious and always wanted to make it to the very top of British politics. Both had political setbacks (Javid was forced out as chancellor in 2020; Hancock was demoted by Theresa May in 2016) but both had sufficient resilience and determination to return to the cabinet. Now Javid, like Hancock, wants to call it a day.

There are, I think, three factors in place. The first is that the Conservatives are demoralised. Most Tory MPs expect to lose the next general election and neither the prospect of serving long years in opposition or fighting and losing one’s seat appeals (on the latter, personally, I had a whale of a time, but my case was not typical). Being in opposition can be a very good time to enter parliament as a backbencher in that you have plenty of freedom and it is easier to make an impression in a smaller party but must be demotivating if you have had the experience of ministerial office.

Second, the life of an MP is not necessarily a happy one. The status is not what it was, there is plenty of abuse on social media, expectations and scrutiny in the constituency are greater than ever and the remuneration has fallen well behind that of most professionals. Outside interests are increasingly frowned upon and, if Gordon Brown gets his way, will be banned for most. At the same time (as Hancock has demonstrated), there are increased opportunities in the media to contribute to the national debate. This does not beat being a cabinet minister but it does beat being a backbencher with little prospect of preferment.

This contributes to a third factor – individual parliamentary longevity seems to be much reduced. MPs who have served for more than 15 years are seen as stale and past it, even if only in their 40s or 50s. Gone are the days when someone like Jim Callaghan could become prime minister 29 years after first becoming a minister.

It is a situation that is not good for the country. Capable and experienced politicians will increasingly not hang around, leaving a smaller pool of talent available to fill ministerial positions when the need arises.

If the trickle of Tory retirements ends up with a flood, Labour will be entitled to be encouraged. But good government requires good ministers and, under our system, those ministers have to be found among MPs. If capable people are unwilling to serve in parliament for more than a few years, that should be a concern to us all.

[See also: Keir Starmer interview: “Am I aiming to be just a one-term prime minister? No, of course not”]