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27 January 2024

What do Penny Mordaunt, Simon Clarke and Jacob Rees-Mogg have in common? Impending irrelevance

None of these people deserve our attention any more.

By Jonn Elledge

A few weeks ago, Miriam Cates, the co-chair of the reactionary party-within-a-party the “New Conservatives”, laid into Labour’s plans to nationalise babies – or, as less socially conservative observers might describe it, hinting that they’d like to expand state-subsidised nursery care. “Six months with mummy or daddy,” she tweeted, “then handed over to the State so mummy and daddy can get back to the Critical National Endeavour of Generating GDP. Has anyone asked if this is best for children?”  

Some of the resulting coverage in right-leaning newspapers went on to ask exactly that. Those less well-disposed to Cates’ view, by contrast, pointed out that Labour had no such policy, and that expanding nursery provision was not quite the same as kidnapping babies. Others noted that Cates was currently under investigation by the parliamentary standards watchdog, for “actions causing significant damage to the reputation of the house”.

Something that went largely undiscussed, however, was how Miriam Cates – a Red Wall MP who only entered parliament in 2019 – is almost certainly nearing the end of her parliamentary career (or at the very least, her first stint). Electoral Calculus gives the Labour Party a 90 per cent chance of retaking her Penistone and Stocksbridge seat in the next election. What Cates thinks about anything almost certainly does not, in the grand scheme of things, matter.

Britain’s political class is struggling to internalise the looming Torypocalypse. The party’s polling is at record lows and sinking lower. Yet talk of a “1992 result” – a surprise Conservative victory – continues, despite requiring either a historic polling error or the services of a friendly genie. Tory policy proposals are reported as if they’re things that might actually happen, rather than just papier-mâché objects made from think tank papers and tweets. Meanwhile, the views of Tory voters are still treated with reverence, while those of the vastly more numerous anti-Tory voters dismissed.

As with the Cates example, some of us are struggling to understand how some politicians get so much airtime today when they are headed not merely into the irrelevance of opposition, but perhaps out of parliament altogether.

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Consider the likely runners and riders in the next Tory leadership contest. Kemi Badenoch is favoured to hold her redrawn seat of North West Essex (although there is still a 26 per cent chance it will elect a Labour MP); Suella Braverman seems less likely to be brought down by the voters of Fareham than by her own inability to play well with others. 

But Grant Shapps, a potential standard bearer for the moderates, is given by Electoral Calculus just a 23 per cent chance of hanging on to Welwyn Hatfield, the sort of Blue Wall seat that’s increasingly flooded with liberal metropolitan exiles. Meanwhile, Penny Mordaunt – touted as a potential replacement for Rishi Sunak in a plot uncovered this week – has less than a one in three chance of holding Portsmouth North. Which wing of the party do these MPs represent? Where would they take their party? It doesn’t matter. We won’t be hearing from them for that much longer. Move on. 

At least those guys are, or have recently been, ministers. Their views may not matter in a year’s time – but they do, in some sense, matter now. The same cannot be said of every Tory braggart whose views are given undue prominence. Simon Clarke has also been implicated in an anti-Sunak plot in recent days, charging over the top in apparent ignorance that nobody was following. Perhaps that was because everyone else realised he had a faintly hilarious 9 per cent chance of retaining the seat. Lee Anderson has said he wishes he hadn’t quit his post as deputy chair of the Conservative Party to rebel on the Rwanda bill, and little wonder: he’s now a mere backbencher with a one in six chance of holding his constituency.

Most excitingly of all – from some perspectives at least – Electoral Calculus gives the Tories just a 35 per cent chance of hanging on to North East Somerset and Hanham. Older readers may remember the excitement, back in 1997, of the “Portillo moment”, when a prominent Conservative looked genuinely outraged to have lost his seat. After the next general election, there’s a very real chance we’ll all be asking each other, “Were you still up for Rees-Mogg?” 

None of these people deserve our attention any more: not, or not just, because of any ideological or moral judgement, but because they simply won’t be in Westminster for much longer. They are not the future, but the past. And a media culture less obsessed with Tory infighting and culture wars would cease to give them the time of day.

There are exceptions to all this. Not every sitting Tory MP is looking down the barrel of unemployment, even on the most outlandish plausible results. The voters have no facility to dispose of the self-important David Frost, a compelling argument for House of Lords reform made flesh. And, of course, it is at least possible that both polling in general and any prediction site you care to look at could simply be wrong.

But the next time you happen on a news story promoting some random right-wing loudmouth, as if their alarming opinions reflect some profound truth about this nation or its future, take a look at their majority and ask yourself: does it matter what this person says? In quite a lot of cases, I suspect, it won’t.

[See also: Labour must not abandon its Green New Deal plan]

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