Quite a flurry
We can’t yet know with absolute certainty how many sitting MPs will decide not to stand at the next general election. In view of 2023’s upcoming constituency boundary changes, Conservative HQ did ask for declarations from their MPs by the beginning of last December. So before Christmas, there was quite a little flurry of announcements.
Thus far, 32 sitting MPs have announced that they won’t stand next time. But there may well be more to come.
Some 19 of these are from the Conservative Party*, 12 are from Labour and one is a Plaid Cymru member. Given that there are currently so many more Conservative than Labour MPs in parliament, superficially it might look as if Labour has the bigger issue to worry about. But, as Indiana Jones once said, “it ain’t the years, it’s the mileage”.
Actually, in this case, it’s both.
Here’s a graph of those 32 plotted by age:
And another plotted by length of service:
It’s not hard to see the difference. The Labour and Plaid Cymru members standing down are all approaching or have already sailed past retirement age (the youngest is 60) and have given decades of service. In contrast, the Conservative bunch are, on average, 17 years younger and have served 11 years fewer than their Labour colleagues.
Indeed, a small but conspicuous handful of these Tory MPs has served less than ten years.
Tell me why
We cannot know for sure why each individual MP has decided to step down but the New Statesman has made a pretty good stab at collating the most likely reasons.
The 12 Labour MPs all appear to be retiring. Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman and Barry Sheerman between them have clocked up 129 years of service.
A few of the older Tory MPs are also taking retirement. Gary Streeting talks about the need to make way for a younger person, while Nigel Adams reckons his 14 years is a decent innings in public life.
However, this leaves more than a dozen younger Conservative MPs who have many years of working life left. Why else might they not wish to stand?
Three MPs sit in constituencies that will disappear when the next Boundary Commissions report comes into force (scheduled for July 2023), leaving them with the choice of standing down or having to go hunting for another seat.
Andrew Percy, Chris Skidmore and Hywel Williams all fall into this category.
In Chris Skidmore’s case, we are left with a sense of unfinished business. He has traced an interesting trajectory, having gone from being one of the five authors of the notorious Britannia Unchained to unapologetic climate change warrior who says he now wants to focus on the UK reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. He is 41 and it is hard not to wonder where he would have ended up, had he decided to stay in parliament.
Rightly or wrongly, current public polling seems settled on Labour forming the next government.
For many Conservative MPs, the risk of losing their seat at the next election looks to be high. At best, perhaps, they can look forward to getting back in with a substantially reduced majority, to face years on the opposition benches. For some, particularly the older MPs, that is unlikely to be an attractive proposition.
But it isn’t just the older ones. Some younger Tories also look to be jumping before they are pushed. 29-year-old Dehenna Davison has been billed as one of the rising stars of the Conservative Party. But after less than one term, she has announced that she will stand down at the next election, giving the time-honoured reason of wanting to spend more time with her family.
Former work and pensions minister Chloë Smith is 40. Two years ago, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. She made a full recovery after treatment but it’s easy to imagine that she now gives a higher priority to things other than sitting on the opposition benches.
No, not that environment. The parliamentary environment. Since the Brexit referendum of 2016, the House of Commons has been a difficult place to work.
At best, the hours are long and the political instability of recent years has made it difficult to get anything done. At worst… well, 55-year-old Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne, described it memorably, back in October:
Others such as William Wragg have also highlighted a toxic and unpleasant culture at Westminster. Wragg took a period of absence earlier this year, for the sake of his mental health after highlighting the bullying and even blackmail that MPs can subjected to by their own party. The 35-year-old Hazel Grove MP is now standing down completely.
The special ones
There’s always one, isn’t there? Although, in this case, there looks to be several.
Matt Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, claims to have had an epiphany during his recent stint on I’m a Celebrity. He says that he has realised that there are other, better ways to engage people than through politics. What he neglects to mention is that his local Conservative Association wrote to Simon Hart, the chief whip, to say that they don’t want him back.
Adam Afriye (Windsor) was declared bankrupt before Christmas, owing a million in taxes to HMRC and £700,000 to Barclays bank. He has declined to resign but will stand down next time.
Nadine Dorries, MP for Mid Bedfordshire, was awarded a life peerage by Boris Johnson in his resignation honours list and will have to give up her seat before she can be installed in the House of Lords. Indeed, it isn’t clear why she has not already done so. Is she trying to avoid the embarrassment of the Conservatives losing her extremely safe seat in a by-election?
Crispin Blunt (Reigate) hit the headlines last April for his loyal defence of disgraced Wakefield MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, who has been jailed for sexual offences against a 15-year-old boy. Blunt may feel disinclined to test his constituents’ appreciation of such loyalty.
And just last week, George Eustice, the MP for Cambourne and Redruth and former environment secretary, announced that he won’t be running again. Eustice is a previous member of UKIP and one of Brexit’s most vocal champions. Perhaps he feels that, since Brexit has been achieved, his work is done. However, last November he stood up in the House of Commons and told everyone that Liz Truss’ beloved trade deal with Australia was a dud. So maybe he has finally given up on Brexit altogether.
We have also noted Johnson’s intention to run again, even though polling in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip indicates that he is likely to lose. Rumours abound that he is casting about for a safer seat. Both Windsor and Mid Beds will be available, after all.
The Conservative stronghold of Derbyshire Dales has also been mentioned as a possibility, in no less a publication than The Times. It is, of course, pure coincidence that the Dales town of Ashbourne was one of only two places in Derbyshire to win its Levelling Up bid last week.
Central Bylines MPs
Our region is losing four of its sitting MPs: Mark Pawsey, Colleen Fletcher, Margaret Beckett and Sajid Javid. Fletcher and Beckett (both Labour) and Pawsey all look to be retiring.
Javid, of course, is the big beast of this group. The 53-year-old has a comfortable majority of 23,000 in his Bromsgrove seat. He would be likely to get re-elected next time. So why is he going? Perhaps he also doesn’t fancy life on the opposition benches. We may never know – his resignation letter was discretion itself.
According to the Financial Times, he has held talks with a number of banks and investment groups about his career after politics. He has also called for patients to be charged for visiting A&E or their GP. It’s impossible not to wonder if the two things are related.
The Conservative Party is sometimes called the world’s most successful political party. Nonetheless, recent years – indeed, recent weeks – have seen many of their most talented members depart. This may leave them with a problem.
As one of the Bylines Network’s founders, Mike Galsworthy, put it: “All the Tory sensibles have long departed and now the half-sensibles are on the way out… leaving just the cultists to steer the ship into the rocks.”
We will watch with interest.
*We have included Matt Hancock among the Conservative MPs although he is now independent, having lost the whip when he announced his intention to participate in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.