The last 13 years of Conservative government have brought the country to breaking point by imposing austerity that depleted key services, brought the NHS to its knees and enabled Covid to take far too many lives. Worst of all, the government has overseen an economic situation that has brought 22% of the population, including 4.5 million children, into poverty, with no clear plan to improve the situation. People have lost faith in the government, and the polls are predicting a Conservative wipeout at the next election. The Prime Minister is making efforts to minimise the party’s losses, but many Conservative MPs have already decided to cut their losses.
What happened to the ‘good Tories’?
Like those other nostalgic tropes of white dog poo, Marathon bars and two and four star petrol, I’m sure we can all remember the ‘good Tories’ – people, I would suggest, like Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke and, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, the former PM John Major. These were men and women with moderate opinions and interests of their own outside the Westminster bubble. Even after Thatcher’s purge of the ‘wets’, there was still a sizeable minority of the party opposed to Brexit and hard-line right-wing policies, but they found themselves cast into the outer darkness, once Alexander de Pfeffel finally got the keys to the tuckshop in 2019.
Are the wets making a comeback?
The sacking of Suella Braverman and the re-emergence of David Cameron is as strong an indication as Rishi can give that he wants to reverse this trend, and rein in the harder-right fringe of his party – probably somewhat belatedly. Is it possible that ‘scouring the Shires’ can bring back any vestiges of moderate right-of-centre politics, and the politicians to represent those viewpoints? And will this be enough to restore any form of trust in the Conservative Party?
The polls set the scene
As polling has proved in the last seven years, nothing is certain, but with the current administration in its death throes, it is looking like the gig is up, and the Conservatives are set to lose power after what will be a 14-year reign. For those who have pre-empted probable ignominy in the next 12 months when the votes are cast, some are jumping ship – or are they being pushed?
East of England MPs
Four MPs in our region have had the decision taken for them: Matt Hancock (West Suffolk) may have found a dubious and probably short-lived notoriety on the small screen, but in so doing, he lost the whip. Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) was abandoned by her own party for both opposing Sunak and effectively giving up on her constituency. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) has been de-selected, partly as a result of boundary changes. One imagines his spare time will be spent administering his (is it or isn’t it a) ‘blind trust’ or possibly, after his last four housekeepers resigned, doing the dusting. Finally, Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) who less than a year ago was hoping to be in the class of ’24, had to undergo an embarrassing volte face when the local Conservative Association nixed his plans. Similar to Dorries and Djanogly, he was felt to be an absentee MP.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) might, too, have the decision taken away from him. His enthusiastic retweeting of images from the State Opening last week might give onlookers the impression he was in attendance. In reality, he’s been absent since his arrest 18 months ago, with his bail now extended until February. At the time of writing, his constituency obviously believe he will be exonerated, as he’s been re-selected to stand next year.
None of the above – which is not intended as your instruction next time you are in the voting booth – would be regarded as political heavyweights. Richard Bacon could be seen as the nearest in that list to a ‘Grandee’, having been incumbent for over 20 years. However, the 2006 Parliamentarian of the Year is hardly a household name, being more likely to be confused with his namesake, the former Blue Peter presenter.
Of those retiring of their own choice: John Baron (64 – Basildon and Billericay) and Mike Penning (66 – Hemel Hempstead ) could possibly argue that they have reached the age to renounce the pressures of political life, whereas Will Quince (40 – Colchester), Chloe Smith (41 – Norwich North) and Stephen McPartland (47 – Stevenage) are hopefully not worn out yet, especially the latter who, having voted fewer times than any Tory MP, can hardly claim to have been exhausted by the experience of representing his constituency. Charles Walker (56 – Broxbourne) is one of the few heading for the door who has been honest about his reasons for going:
“It’s just very difficult, the public are demanding and they’re becoming more demanding. They’re becoming quite angry, some of them cross the line and at times I feel like it’s a pretty toxic environment.”
Toxic indeed; although a salary of over £86,000, subsidised food and drink, and a ‘golden goodbye’ payment of £17,000 might sweeten the pill somewhat, as would an extremely lax prescribed attendance requirement. It is hard not to shed crocodile tears for anyone with any hand in the political failings of the last seven years – in particular, with the disastrous mis-management of Brexit, Covid and the economy, a triple-whammy that has left the electorate reeling.
What of those who’ll take their places?
Those who step into the breach for their departing comrades will have little hope of victory. Of the eleven vacated seats, none had a larger majority in 2019 than Labour overturned in the recent Mid Bedfordshire by-election. Only West Suffolk and Basildon and Billericay came anywhere near. All of the others have even weaker prospects. Ben Obese-Jecty standing in John Major’s former constituency is an apparent moderate who stands a decent chance of victory; Stevenage’s hopeful is a former actor, Norwich North’s a children’s author, but even more glamorous is the selection of Olympian James Cracknell to stand in Colchester.
Any of the candidates successful at the election will belong to a party likely to spend several terms in opposition, and almost certainly still be divided over exactly how far to the right it needs to go. Whether the Tories have their ‘Tea Party’ moment and go even more extreme, or recapture a connection with the core electorate with ‘compassionate Conservatism’ remains to be seen. In the meantime, almost without exception, the ‘class of 2019’ who will not be seeking re-election will leave little political legacy, other than their participation in probably the most tumultuous yet also least effective government in recent history.