Record exodus of MPs from Conservative Party – privately, many believe defeat is inevitable

Politics

On the final day the House of Commons sat before the election, the view from the back of the chamber said it all.

As Theresa May – in her familiar flame red suit – left the chamber after a speech by Ben Wallace, the Tory benches were packed, Labour’s almost deserted.

MPs were taking part in a “Valedictory Debate”, an unprecedented and hastily convened piece of parliamentary business for departing MPs to say their farewells.

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And while the debate was going on, an historic milestone was reached: the number of Conservatives standing down exceeded the number in 1997 after 18 years of Tory rule.

With an announcement by the 74-year-old Bexleyheath and Crayford MP Sir David Evennett, the total number of MPs retiring or quitting had reached 76 – one more than the 75 in 1997.

And by the time parliament prorogued at 8.25pm, the number had reached 78, after two shock announcements, first from Michael Gove and then former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom.

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In a moment of pure parliamentary theatre, the news of Mr Gove’s departure was broken to stunned MPs in the Commons by Matt Hancock, who’d earlier made an emotional farewell speech.

Then while the prorogation ceremony was taking place came the bombshell announcement from Dame Andrea, now a junior health minister, that she’s quitting too. And with a barb at Rishi Sunak too!

“I will continue to support the Conservative Party…” she declared pointedly in her letter to Mr Sunak. Most resignation letters from departing ministers offer personal support for the prime minister. Ouch!

So at prorogation the total number of MPs standing down had reached 121, four more than 1997, though still short of the 149 who stood down in 2010, after 13 years of Labour government.

Inside the chamber, the debate had been emotional. There were tears as well as laughs. There were anecdotes and gushing tributes. And even, from one departing MP, bitterness, anger and allegations.

Many of those quitting on both sides of the Commons are distinguished ex-ministers, or prime minister in Mrs May’s case. But many are much younger and in many cases surprise departures.

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All the MPs standing down

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Dehenna Davison MP arrives at Here East studios in Stratford, east London, before the live television debate for the candidates for leadership of the Conservative party, hosted by Channel 4. Picture date: Friday July 15, 2022.
Image:
Dehenna Davison is one of the youngest MPs standing down. Pic: PA

One of the youngest, Dehenna Davison, told MPs: “I never thought I’d be speaking for the last time in this chamber, let alone at the age of 30.”

Some Tory MPs, it must be said, are leaving parliament after being embroiled in some form of scandal or facing misconduct allegations which resulted in them losing the party whip.

The MP making angry accusations, accusing a government whip of bullying and harassment, was Julian Knight, who faced allegations of serious sexual assault investigated then dropped by police.

Mr Hancock, health secretary during COVID, who lost the Tory whip for appearing on TV reality show I’m A Celebrity, talked in his emotional speech about the effects on his children.

“The impact of the scrutiny of politics, especially when people make mistakes, has a huge impact on them, and they have put up with a lot,” he said, close to tears.

There were tears too from former sports minister Dame Tracey Crouch during what she said was “one of the most emotional speeches I have ever made in parliament”.

Besides Mrs May, Mr Wallace, Mr Gove, Dame Andrea and Mr Hancock, 12 more current or former Tory cabinet ministers departing: Sajid Javid, George Eustice, Alister Jack, Dominic Raab, David Jones, Alok Sharma, Chris Grayling, Brandon Lewis, Nadhim Zahawi, Chris Heaton-Harris, Sir John Redwood and Greg Clark.

In her valedictory speech, with her husband Sir Philip watching on from the public gallery, Mrs May paid tribute to her “best canvasser-in-chief” who was there to “make the beans on toast and pour the whisky” on the difficult days in Downing Street.

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Theresa May urges Tories ‘to go out and fight’

And at the end of the debate, there were tributes to Craig Mackinlay, who made a triumphant, defiant and emotional return to the Commons this week after sepsis but now acknowledges he won’t be fit enough to fight the campaign.

Also going is the inscrutable but always cheerful Sir Graham Brady, who’s chaired the 1922 Committee almost interrupted since 2010 alongside five Tory prime ministers.

Two deputy speakers, the dames Eleanor Laing and Rosie Winterton, and Tory backbench grandees Sir Charles Walker and Sir Bill Cash are departing.

And on the Labour side, the distinguished Dame Margarets, Beckett and Hodge, along with the Mother of the House Dame Harriet Harman, who told MPs Rishi Sunak was two when she was first elected, are leaving.

From the smaller parties, the former SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas are off too.

And besides Mr Knight, several MPs who’ve lost their party whip, Tories Crispin Blunt, William Wragg, Mark Menzies and Mr Knight and Labour’s Nick Brown and Conor McGinn, are going, along with the former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who’s accused of sex offences.

Why are so many Tory MPs going? Is it because they read the opinion polls and believe their party’s time is up and they don’t fancy the hard slog and often unrewarding grind of opposition?

There’s a famous quote attributed to James Callaghan, during the 1979 general election campaign, shortly before Labour was swept from power by Margaret Thatcher.

“You know there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics,” avuncular “Sunny Jim” observed shrewdly to his close aide Bernard Donoughue.

“It then doesn’t matter what you say or do. There’s a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”


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In 2024, Tory ministers and loyalist backbenchers won’t admit publicly that there’s a sea change for Labour and Sir Keir Starmer. But privately, many believe defeat is inevitable.

And that’s almost certainly why so many Conservative MPs are quitting.

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