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7 November 2023

The Tories’ incredible shrinking majority

Since the last election in 2019, the Conservatives’ lead has fallen by 30.

By Anoosh Chakelian

And then there were… 50.

When the Conservatives won the 2019 general election, their “80-strong majority” became a mantra – a triumph championed by their MPs and lamented by the much-diminished opposition. It was felt that, with their majority of 80 (greater than any majority since 2001, even the coalition’s joint-party 76), they could pass Boris Johnson’s agenda easily.

Not only did that agenda wither away, but two prime ministers and zero general elections later the party’s majority has shrunk to 50. Now, it would take just 29 Tory rebels to defeat the government.

This is a drop of 30 seats of the majority in four years, just above the number John Major’s government lost in 1992-97, when his 21-seat majority fell to minus seven, according to figures shared with the New Statesman by the Institute for Government (compiled from parliament’s own data).

Labour lost 22 of its 64-seat majority from 2005-10, its most recent term in office. In contrast, the coalition government lost just ten of its majority in the five years from 2010-15, and New Labour held its 177-seat majority throughout its first term in 1997-2001.

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Chart by Ben Walker

[See also: Keir Starmer is emerging as a national leader]

How has this government lost so many MPs?

A few, like Johnson himself, simply quit for political reasons before serving out their term, triggering by-elections (other examples include Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams). Some have died, including Cheryl Gillan, whose Chesham and Amersham seat fell to the Lib Dems.

Others were suspended as Tory MPs over scandals and then resigned (Imran Khan following a sexual assault conviction; Chris Pincher having lost an appeal against his suspension from the Commons for groping complaints; David Warburton over allegations of sexual harassment and cocaine use; and Neil Parish after admitting to watching porn in parliament, for example). Christian Wakeford defected to Labour last January, partly over Johnson’s “disgraceful conduct”, and now sits as a Labour MP.

Most recently Peter Bone, suspended as a Tory and now sitting as an independent, faces a recall petition after MPs approved his six-week suspension over claims of bullying and sexual misconduct. Jake Berry, the former Conservative Party chairman, has also reportedly written to police about an unnamed Tory MP accused of "a range of offences including multiple rapes".

Any government majority will of course face attrition, and this isn’t the biggest or fastest drop in recent parliaments. Between the 2017 and 2019 general elections, the Tory majority fell from -16 to -54, a drop of 38. That was a particularly volatile parliament, as the Brexit votes battled through the Commons and divided parties.

But there have been more by-elections in this parliament (which began after the 2019 election) than any in recent years, research by the Institute for Government shows. There have been 19 (four triggered by the death of the incumbent MP), eight of which were lost by the Conservatives.

But more significant is not how many but why so many by-elections have been triggered. It is “unusual for so many to result from resignations for misconduct”, notes the think tank.

Political realities may be playing into this trend. For example, following the Owen Paterson scandal in 2021, when the government was seen to be protecting its own MP – who had been accused of breaking lobbying rules – from the parliamentary standards watchdog, MPs are more careful to uphold sanctions for misconduct claims. It may also be that at the tail end of a tired parliament, ahead of an election one's party is expected to lose, it is more tempting to resign rather than fight on.

Yet there has also been a (depressingly slow) cultural shift, following the #MeToo moment and parliament’s own version of it known as “Pestminster”. The numerous allegations against MPs, Conservative and otherwise, suggest Westminster is far from a professional workplace; clearly power imbalances are regularly exploited by politicians and parties are still protecting their own. But these figures suggest that MPs are increasingly being publicly held to account on issues of misconduct.

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