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27 March 2024updated 04 Apr 2024 3:48pm

The vanishing Tories

Slowly but surely, the Conservative Party’s chaotic era trudges on.

By Rachel Cunliffe

To lose one minister may be regarded as a misfortune – to lose two in a single week looks like carelessness. Or, more accurately, like inevitability. Hence the news on Tuesday (26 March) that the skills minister Robert Halfon would be joining the armed forces minister James Heappey in quitting his government role and standing down as an MP at the next election was greeted by the Westminster equivalent of a shrug.

It was a regretful shrug, to be sure. Heappey and Halfon are both widely liked and respected ministers in their departments, and their resignation announcements prompted a wave of appreciative cross-party tributes. These are not troublemakers flouncing out of Rishi Sunak’s government in protest at his leadership in the manner of Robert Jenrick and Lee Anderson. Nor are they plotters trying to use their departures as MPs to send a message, like Chris Skidmore did when he triggered a by-election last month (which the Conservatives predictably lost). But their decision does send a message all the same, as does the muted reaction to it. And that message is: even the Tories think it’s all over.

That’s not just because the number of Conservative MPs who have announced they won’t be running again now stands at 63 – although this is hardly a vote of confidence. Heappey and Halfon both had the kind of sizeable majorities in 2019 (9,991 and 14,063, respectively) that looked super safe, but now, with the polls consistently indicating at least a 15-point swing to Labour, seem precarious.

They of course have their own reasons for deciding to leave parliament at this stage. Heappey cited wanting to prioritise his family and pursue a different career; Halfon, meanwhile, quoted Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings in his letter to the chair of his local Conservative Association, saying after over two decades in the political arena, “My time is over.” Both men will no doubt be considering their options outside politics, and as the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments generally recommends those leaving government wait six months before taking up outside jobs, it makes sense that they would leave at this stage to ensure enough of a gap by the time the next election is held.

All perfectly understandable, which might explain the lack of drama surrounding the announcements. Except actually, it isn’t. Two experienced, respected ministers who would in normal times be tipped for front-bench roles after the next election have decided not to bother. So sure are they of defeat – not just of their party but perhaps of their own seats – that they’ve made a calculation to leave government early. Ordinarily, that kind of sentiment would be sending Westminster into a tailspin. It would be received as a statement on the party’s prospects and spark renewed pressure on the Prime Minister whose chances are considered so dismal.

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But other than a tiny news-in-brief snippet in the FT, the news made none of the front pages today. It hasn’t revitalised calls for Sunak to go. Anonymous MPs have not been voicing their fury. Because no one is surprised. And that is pretty damning in itself.

There’s also the question of who exactly is governing right now – or, indeed, how much governing is actually happening. Tuesday night’s mini-reshuffle saw a flurry of fresh appointments on the lower ministerial ranks. The most noteworthy news was the promotion of Jonathan Gullis – Red Wall firebrand and frequent critic of the PM – to fill the deputy party chair vacancy left by fellow Red Wall firebrand (and now the Reform party’s sole MP) Lee Anderson. “Scraping the bottom of the barrel,” was how one weary Tory insider responded. “Trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results,” was the assessment of another, noting the trouble Anderson’s penchant for provocation caused Sunak when he was first appointed to the role a year ago.

But really, Gullis isn’t the most significant story. The bigger issue is how much do the new ministers really expect to get done in the months leading up to an election? Are they really hoping to make a difference to schools or the armed forces? Or are they just there to fill empty seats as the long, slow trudge towards polling day continues?

In the frenzied final days of Boris Johnson’s leadership, ministers were resigning from his government faster than he could replace them. What brought him down in the end wasn’t a vote of no confidence (his party tried that a month beforehand and Johnson won). Instead, it was the sheer lack of MPs willing to serve in his government.

What’s happening right now isn’t the same: Heappey and Halfon have both reiterated their support and respect for Sunak, and their reasons for standing down are very different. But with the polls now at their lowest point since the chaos of the Liz Truss era, there is an atmosphere of déjà vu all the same – the Johnson downfall and the whirlwind demise of Truss playing out again at a glacial speed.

[See also: Wagner’s next act in Africa]

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