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30 October 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:22am

Nicky Morgan’s resignation shows the real reason so many MPs are stepping down

The number of MPs retiring is no different to other elections, but the reasons for their departures are. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Jo Johnson, Amber Rudd, Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart, David Lidington, Heidi Allen, and now, Nicky Morgan… Over 50 MPs have announced they are stepping down at the next election, and the number keeps rising.

It seems absolutely unprecedented, but is it?

In terms of the numbers, the simple answer is no. Phillip Cowley has pointed out that an average of 86 MPs stood down in each general election between 1979 and 2015: in 2015, for example, it was 90. So for all that the retirements of familiar names seem to be coming thick and fast, there is nothing statistically significant about the number standing down at this election (or at least, not yet). 

What is remarkable, though, is the type of MP stepping down this time round.  Looking at a list of people retiring at previous general elections, they tend to be those who privately felt they were going to lose their seats anyway, or those of either retirement age or who felt they had rounded off a full career in politics: typical retirees, basically.  

This time there are the typical retirees, of course, like former Chancellor Ken Clarke, former defence secretary Michael Fallon, and even David Lidington (despite the surprise today over his announcement, he has had a long political career and, at the age of 63, says he wants to spend more time with his family while he is “still in active and good health”). There are also those who fear for the impact of Brexit on their electoral prospects, and those who are in both camps: Labour MP Kevin Barron, for example, may have private fears for a Labour candidate in his Leave seat of Rother valley, after Ukip slashed his usually-comfortable majority in the last election, but he retires at the age of 73, with a knighthood, and after a parliamentary career spanning more than 36 years.  

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But many stepping down this time around don’t fit into any of the usual categories. Heidi Allen, the former Conservative and ex-TIG MP, announced this week that she wouldn’t be standing again at the next election, despite only recently joining the Liberal Democrats, and with a good chance of retaining her strongly-Remain South Cambridgeshire seat.

Seema Kennedy, likewise, is an example of an unusual MP to be standing down at this point.  Elected only in 2015, she was Theresa May’s trusted PPS, her go-between with the parliamentary party and close confidante, and considered a rising star in the Conservative party: at 45, her trajectory in politics was only just beginning.

Resignations like Kennedy’s and Allen’s – and there are lots of them – are the genuinely unusual thing about this spate of retirements, and they seem to be caused not by the MPs’ personal chances of defeat, but by our political climate. We keep talking about how tensions and divisions are at an all-time high in this country over Brexit, how our civic discourse has coursened, and how abuse of MPs is at unprecedented levels, but we don’t seem to have found any solution, nor have we considered how it will shape the next batch of MPs we elect.

Heidi Allen has been upfront about her reasons for stepping down – as her joining the Liberal Democrats only a few weeks ago suggests, it was not a long-planned move.  In her resignation letter, Allen wrote about that she is “exhausted by the invasion into my privacy and the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace”; in an interview, she suggested that an email which accused her of ‘killing a baby’ by having an abortion had been the final straw. 

Allen said she would tell young people thinking about becoming MPs to “let this period of toxicity pass” before doing so. 

Kennedy, meanwhile, hasn’t said why she is stepping down. The clue, however, is in one of the defining experiences of her parliamentary career: a year after she entered parliament, Kennedy and a colleague from across the green benches, Jo Cox, began work to set up a commission to tackle loneliness. After Cox’s murder, Kennedy carried on the work in her memory: it was renamed the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. In her resignation letter, Kennedy cites that as “the work of which I am most proud”. 

Most of this piece was written before Nicky Morgan announced that she, too, would be standing down at the next election – a shock departure from a serving cabinet minister. She has been clear that the move is not a political judgement on the direction of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, but rather a personal choice based on the abuse she and her family have been subjected to. It clarifies and sharpens what was already bubbling under the surface: our toxic culture of abuse is actively driving MPs, particularly women, away from public life. 

It recalls something Rory Stewart said at a think tank event months ago, before he himself reached the decision to resign and run for London mayor. “Politics is awful,” he told the room. “Much, much worse than you could ever imagine.”

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