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15 November 2023

Tory ministers think the next election is already lost

A series of lower-profile resignations from the government are more telling than David Cameron’s return.

By Freddie Hayward

George Freeman, Nick Gibb, Neil O’Brien, Jeremy Quin, Jesse Norman: not names you may be familiar with but ones that tell a story about this government’s decline. They are all government ministers who chose to resign this week. Some of the party’s most experienced mid-tier ministers are declaring the next election already to be lost.

They are respected around Westminster for their ability and understanding of policy. Gibb has been schools minister for ten of the past 13 years, having spent five years in opposition drawing up plans for education reform. The reforms he and Michael Gove made – the expansion of academies, the adoption of phonics – are some of the few intentional changes left by the Tory government. Freeman has been minister for science for two years after 15 as a biomedical venture capitalist. O’Brien advised George Osborne for four years at the Treasury before becoming an MP in 2017. Long tipped for high office, he is leaving the ministerial ranks prematurely.

Their given reasons for resigning were to focus on their constituencies and spend time with their families. Other Tories suggested that they have an eye on serving the requisite six-month hiatus from government that ministers must fulfil before taking up private-sector jobs.

There is also a sense that this is not a government that MPs want to be associated with. Fifty-one Tory MPs have so far said they are standing down at the next election. One of those who left government I spoke to expressed immense, palpable rage at the velocity of change atop government in recent years. They felt their mission to bring about real reform had been sabotaged by politicking in the cabinet. When successive administrations fell, their work stuttered. It’s a story of the past three years writ small.

Looking at those that have left, you can see that many stuck around even as the purpose of the Conservative Party mutated from fiscal conservatism to Brexit to Johnsonian boosterism to Liz Truss’s Reaganism to whatever it is Sunak’s No 10 is trying to achieve. The Tories’ true purpose hasn’t really changed – it’s to keep hold of power. But this week has shown that some of the party’s quietly critical MPs no longer think they can.

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