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The parliamentary drop-outs

Why are so many MPs standing down at the election?

Photo: Hannah McKay - WPA Pool/Getty Images

At the time of writing, 116 different MPs have announced that they won’t be standing for re-election this year, including 19 current and former cabinet ministers (and one former prime minister, Theresa May).

That amounts to one MP in every six deciding to throw in the towel without a fight – by some margin the largest volume of resignations since 2010, when Labour was limping to the end of a 13-year period in government. Perhaps more significantly, the 2010 election followed the MPs’ expenses scandal, which prompted lots of those culpable to pledge not to run again.

While the government has had no shortage of scandal, and a sizeable minority of MPs have disgraced themselves to the point of losing their party’s parliamentary whip, there has been no equivalent cross-parliamentary scandal this term, making the scale of the resignations ostensibly quite mysterious – what has prompted so many once ambitious politicians to give up?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the resignation rate is highest among Conservative MPs, 73 of whom are calling it a day – more than one in five of the current parliamentary cohort. By not contesting their seats, resigning MPs give up the chance of a payout worth several months’ salary if they contested their seats and lost.

Forfeiting that money, then, must come with compensation of another sort. For some of them it will simply be that contesting a seat is a gruelling process and one in which it is hard not to emotionally invest – spending six weeks going all out on what for many would be a losing battle (unless the polls are drastically wrong) takes a toll on the psyche. Why not leave someone new to contest the seat and leave parliament on your own terms?

For others, it is perhaps the prospect of winning that is unappetising. Opposition is always less satisfying than government – even government backbenchers have much more ability to affect change and have a say than oppositions, even in the best of circumstances.

And for the Conservative Party, the circumstances are likely to be far from good – David Cameron bet the future of the nation on the Brexit referendum, hoping it would serve to reunite his fractured and fractious party.

That bet failed spectacularly on all fronts, and as the exhausted Tories limp to the election starting line, they are more divided than ever – to the point that some MPs even tried to overthrow the prime minister after he had declared a general election.

Defeat does not bring politicians together: almost everyone expects that the Conservatives will engage in what could be a protracted bout of civil war after an election defeat, with the victorious faction likely depending on which way the seat losses fall.

At this point, there is no guarantee any particular grouping will emerge victorious, as no-one knows how many of its members will be returned. Faced with that uncertainty, and the idea of at least four years (and possibly more) in the wilderness, some MPs make the decision to call time on their years of public service.

It is not, of course, only Conservatives that are standing down. Some MPs are quite simply retiring: Harriet Harman, for example, is in her seventies and has been an MP for almost 42 years. There is no great mystery there.

But younger MPs also sometimes decide they have simply had enough – Holly Lynch, currently the Labour MP for Halifax, is stepping down despite being just 37 and her seat being an almost certain win. Being an MP is a difficult and often thankless job, especially in these polarised times, and sometimes people decide it’s no longer for them.

More MPs will announce in the days to come that they are throwing in the towel, and if the polls are to be believed dozens if not hundreds more will be displaced by the voters on 4 July. When parliament reconvenes after the election, expect it to look dramatically different than it does today. Political reporters will have a lot of new faces with which to get familiar.

UPDATE: 9am, Sat May 25: In the 24 hours since this piece was first written, the total number of MPs announcing they will not stand again has risen to 121 – with the increase coming entirely from the Conservative benches, with 78 Tory MPs now standing down.

Significantly, former cabinet ministers (and leadership contenders) Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove were among the new retirees – the latter in particular causing ripples of shock across Westminster. Gove, despite never holding one of the so-called “Great Offices of State” (PM, chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary) has been described in multiple quarters as the most significant of this crop of retirees – despite it including former prime minister Theresa May.

Parliament will look extremely different post-election – and not just on the front benches. So far, ten select committee chairs (eight of them Tories) are among those standing down.

Most bizarrely of all, Rishi Sunak has unexpectedly decided to take Saturday off campaigning to spend the day at his homes (plural) with his aides, prompting fevered (but surely misplaced) speculation that he might do the unthinkable and not run again himself. Surely, surely, someone from his team will deny that in the near future. Surely.

UPDATE: 11am, Sat May 25: The exodus of Conservative MPs might not be bad news for all of the party’s supporters: it leaves the Tories looking for candidates in more than 150 seats, many of them still eminently winnable, even with the current dire status of the polls.

Savvier potential candidates have been waiting for this moment – especially as Conservative local associations have generally been selecting local councillors (often council leaders) rather than bright young things perhaps favoured by HQ. When the party is headed for opposition, local members often opt for someone who will care about the potholes than be tipped as a future cabinet minister.

Swooping in at the last moment bypasses that process entirely, and perhaps gives Number 10 a last chance to repay loyalty (or even favours) – or at least to try to shape the future of the Conservative grouping in parliament. Most of this will be invisible to the public, but be sure: there will be serious horse-trading going on behind the scenes.

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