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  1. Politics
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27 March 2024

What the latest resignations mean for the Tories

Two ministers have quit – and more Conservative MPs will follow.

By Freddie Hayward

The Prime Minister’s plan to send his MPs off on holiday with an upbeat message about the economy was scuppered by two ministerial resignations. Robert Halfon and James Heappey both called it quits. They are also standing down as MPs at the next election.

You can interpret their resignations in two ways.

On the one hand it’s normal for MPs in the governing party to bow out, as the natural conclusion of their time in office draws near. Halfon was first elected in 2010 and Heappey in 2015. At the close of the New Labour period and in the wake of the expenses scandal, 100 Labour MPs stood down. So far, after a slightly longer time in office, 63 Tory MPs have said they want to leave. Reports that the government has asked MPs to stagger their announcements suggests that the number will grow – and also why further resignations won’t come as a surprise.

On the other hand, their departure suggests that MPs think the election is lost and/or the party is turning into something they don’t want to partake in. This latest round will particularly sting for No 10 because both ministers were seen as specialists with decent experience. Heappey was the well-respected minister for the armed services, to whom Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey paid tribute in the House of Commons yesterday. Halfon, who was responsible for apprenticeships and skills in the Department for Education, has built a reputation as an advocate for re-skilling those without the training necessary to get well-paid jobs. He follows his colleague Nick Gibb, a former education minister who left in November with a similar reputation, but for schools. Sunak is now running low on experienced ministers.

But there is a third noteworthy aspect to their resignations. Both MPs managed to stay relatively aloof from the Conservative civil war 2016-24. Heappey, for instance, stayed in post throughout the year of the three prime ministers. It was seen – and this tells you a lot about Westminster – that as a former major who had served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Ministry of Defence, he actually had the skills to do his job rather than being a member of the right faction.

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Which brings us to the subsequent reshuffle. Leo Docherty will become armed forces minister and Luke Hall, education minister. Nusrat Ghani receives a promotion to the Foreign Office. Sunak supporters Alan Mak and Kevin Hollinrake both get promotions too.

Meanwhile, the PM has taken this opportunity to appoint Jonathan Gullis as a deputy party chairman, ultimately replacing Lee Anderson who has now defected to Reform. Gullis is a fervent critic of illegal migration and a member of the Common Sense Group of MPs, led by John Hayes. No 10 will hope that he jettisons Anderson’s disloyalty while retaining the ability to appeal to those voters – and, perhaps more importantly, those MPs – furious about the crossings in the Channel.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Even Tories are disowning austerity]

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