The MP exodus reveals the careerism of modern politics

Conservatives are quitting en masse because there are no shared principles that bind them together.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics UK

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Few things better symbolise the exhaustion of British politics than the many members of parliament standing down at the forthcoming General Election. At the time of writing, up to 129 MPs have announced that they will not be seeking re-election come July. With over a week to go before candidate nominations are finalised, this figure looks likely to increase further.

The vast majority of those standing down are Conservative MPs. They include former prime minister Theresa May, former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and, most notably, current ‘levelling up’ secretary Michael Gove.

The mass exodus from parliament is not confined to the Tories. Former Labour ministers Harriet Harman and Dame Margaret Hodge are leaving, as is the SNP’s former Westminster leader, Ian Blackford. They are joined by two current deputy speakers and the chairs of 10 select committees.

Some of those resigning have undoubtedly served long careers and understandably want to retire. A few represent constituencies facing boundary changes and their role will no longer exist in the same form. But the sheer number of resignations is still worthy of comment.

More Conservative MPs are standing down ahead of this General Election than in 1997, when Tony Blair’s Labour Party swept to victory. Among this number are defectors Natalie Elphicke and Dan Poulter (no, me neither), who dumped the Tories to join Labour for their last few weeks in parliament. Then there’s Lucy Allan, who is both standing down and has been suspended from her party, after she failed to back her Conservative replacement and instead endorsed the candidate from rivals Reform.

While the average age of resigning Labour MPs is 66, those quitting the Tory Party are a full 10 years younger. Erstwhile rising star Dehenna Davison is just 30, yet is still retiring from parliament. MPs in their mid-50s and below are hardly likely to be giving up the green benches to relax in their slippers and watch daytime TV. It’s not that they lack ambition, they just don’t see politics as the best forum for fulfilling their aspirations. The flight from Westminster reveals the extent to which the mainstream parties have, over recent decades, attracted people more interested in their careers than in fighting for their convictions. Time spent serving as an MP seems to mean little more than a line on a CV. It’s seen as the next rung on the ladder towards a better-paying job in finance, or a more influential job in the media. For those Tories facing defeat in a few weeks, getting out now is seen as preferable to slogging it out in opposition.

But there is more to what’s going on than just career strategising. When the Tories lose one MP to the Labour Party and another for endorsing Reform in just a matter of weeks, we can see that the Conservative Party is not so much a ‘broad church’ as an empty void. The likes of Theresa May and Suella Braverman share few values or principles. Even the Tory-to-Labour defectors, Natalie Elphicke and Dan Poulter, seem politically incompatible.

Having ditched Boris Johnson, and with him any hint of populist aspiration, the Conservatives have become a zombie party. An ideological vacuum has replaced any meaningful political agenda. The zombie could be kept going, it seems, just as long as electoral success seemed likely. But when staring defeat in the face, few MPs seem interested in sustaining the party’s existence any longer.

MPs can change sides at the drop of a hat, or hand in their notice for a job with a bigger pay cheque, because politics is being rendered redundant in our age of resurgent technocracy. There is no political idea or value worth fighting for late at night in the Commons, or in boring committee meetings, or when there are no headlines to be grabbed. When there are no deeply held shared principles binding party members to a common cause, loyalty counts for nothing, especially when out of power. Bin the blue rosette or switch it for a red one. Whatever. Neither decision means anything very much. Unsurprisingly, a party staring down defeat, that stands for so little, also seems to be struggling to find prospective parliamentary candidates for the 150 vacancies it now needs to fill.

As the resignation announcements tumble out of Westminster, it is hard to muster anything other than a shrug at each new name. But when politics becomes reduced to a short-term career move, and MPs represent only their own interests, democracy itself is degraded.

By resigning, MPs are evading responsibility for their record. Angry voters are now likely to be deprived of their ‘Portillo moment’, as when cabinet minister Michael Portillo was unceremoniously unseated back in 1997. Those who were voted into office in 2019, but then rejected the populist leanings of Boris Johnson’s premiership, ought to have the decency to face the wrath of the electorate.

But there may be cause for optimism. Clearing the decks can be a precursor for change. As the exhausted Tories shut up shop, room for new ideas and new parties may finally be found.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and author of How Woke Won. She is a visiting fellow at MCC Budapest.

Picture by: UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.

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Topics Politics UK


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