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The politics of the spinning door

Scores of Tory MPs are standing down before an expected election mauling in the hope of getting a new job. What does that mean for Westminster?

Photo: TNE/Getty

There are many reasons people give for being dissatisfied with politicians, but one of the ones that comes high up the list is a sense that MPs and ministers don’t do their jobs for the good of the public, but rather for themselves, their friends, or their future paymasters.

In reality, most MPs earn less after they leave parliament than they made before they signed up – but there are enough conspicuous exceptions to tar the majority with the impression that everyone is on the take. 

Yet there is also the complication that politics is a career with next-to-no job security. Elections can come unpredictably, and a politician losing their seat gets two months’ pay and a stipend to cover the cost of shutting down their office. 

Given MPs earn around £90,000 a year, sympathy might be limited here, but each MP employs multiple staffers, often on derisory wages by London standards – caseworkers often earn considerably less than £30,000, even in London. MPs’ staff are generally expected to work for free on the campaign during the general election, and face unemployment should their MP fail to be re-elected.

All of which is to say there is something of a career apocalypse heading for Westminster – as if the polls are even roughly correct, there will be a huge overturning of MPs at the next general election, which is going to lead to a once-in-a-generation shift of SW1’s denizens.

Some of this explains why some ministers are quitting their ministerial posts now, even if they are remaining as MPs until the election is called. This starts the clock ticking on their time out of ministerial office now, meaning they could start an external job in a related area sooner.

These are the people in the Conservative Party most able to get some kind of politics-related job after they leave Westminster – while post-election they are unlikely to have access to the new government’s political officials, they will still have lots of up-to-date technical and policy knowledge, will know the issues the new government faces, and more. That is marketable information (and allowable under the rules) even if it comes without lobbying access.

The picture for outgoing Conservative MPs and their staff is much less good. During any election campaign there will be some sitting MPs who lose their seats, but in an election like 2017 or 2019, there are also unexpected gains for the governing party. In that situation, a researcher who finds themselves unemployed can generally get snapped up by a new MP who is staffing up.

If the Conservatives face a wipeout even half the size of that currently suggested by the polls, there will be hundreds of experienced staff with no roles left, and virtually no new Conservative MPs to hire even a handful of them. Former MPs themselves will be in oversupply – given their party will be out of government and the steady stream of early departing MPs too, only a very select few will find roles even loosely affiliated to politics.

In reality, the entire wider Westminster ecosystem will transform in such a way as to make it difficult for Conservatives to thrive. Politics is a game of feast and famine, and there is almost nothing that can be done to mitigate that.

When your party is in government – or looks likely to be in government soon – think tanks with close ties to your party find it relatively easy to attract funding, which means in turn they attract staff, and want to pick up people with existing connections to government. 

Once you look like you’re heading out of government, that process rapidly goes into reverse. Some think tanks will pivot towards Labour, having hedged their bets and made overtures in that direction over the last year. There will still be a role for Conservative think tanks and some donors to fund them – trying to shape the soul of the party in opposition – but there will be retrenchment at best, not some large-scale hiring spree.

Lobbyists, or public affairs firms as they generally prefer to be known, have a similarly complex minefield to navigate over the next year. In general, they will be looking to trim the number of their staff who have ties with the Conservative party and to hire those with ties to Labour.

But the timing is tricky: hiring Labour staff now is generally foolish. The people you would most want to hire would be those who would be offered roles as special advisors or similar in a Labour government, which would mean they would leave the company just as they would become useful. 

Waiting too long, though, might mean you’re left only with the people no-one wanted to hire. In reality, getting people with connections to a government that hasn’t formed yet is basically impossible – but there is no benefit to be gained from hiring people from the Tory side to fill those roles in the meantime.

All of which is to say that politics is a brutal game, and one in which the winner takes everything. Unless the polls are wildly mistaken, lots of people will not just lose their jobs, but will find themselves looking for an entirely new career, and they will get almost no sympathy as they do so – after all, think how little was given to those Labour staffers left job hunting after elections in the last 14 years.

This is all already in motion, and helps to explain some of what is already happening – such as experienced ministers leaving their positions. Westminster is essentially rotating out its cast of characters, and the roles that change are far beyond the ones visible on TV screens or sitting in parliament.

Part of people’s problem with politics is the revolving door, even if that door will always have to exist in some form or another – and there are certainly checks and balances that should exist, but don’t. However, for the next year or so, it is set to spin faster than it has for decades. We need to be careful not to let the motion blur force us to avert our eyes.

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