Picture by Edward Massey / CCHQ

Exodus of Conservative MPs is a sign of the times for Rishi Sunak

Drip by drip, statement by statement, Conservative MPs are fleeing the green benches of the House of Commons for pastures new. 

According to a recent PoliticsHome scoop, departing Tories are being urged to “stagger” their announcements between now and a general election later this year. But with the number of MPs bailing on Westminster still rising by the week, such strategised “staggering” is hardly stemming the tide of ebbing Tories. 

The total, tellingly, already stands at a towering 59.

Consider the historical context: in 1997, ahead of a much-foretold routing courtesy of Tony Blair, a full 75 Conservative MPs wandered willingly into the wilderness. Since 1997, the number of Tories standing down has never figured higher than 41, the 2019 total, which ballooned due to Brexit pressures. That the total for 2024 has already risen to 59 is therefore striking — and highly revealing. 

The appeal of leaving parliament ahead of a likely electoral routing is, of course, manifest. Rather than lining up on election night after months of dogged campaigning (in the October/November/December cold), a Tory in an under-threat constituency can depart on their own terms. Simply put, why sign up for the ritual humiliation of election night, when you can submit a statement to Twitter on a day of your choosing — rejoicing in one’s political achievements? These considerations will prove doubly compelling for ministers and ex-ministers: the spectre of Portillo, as ever, looms large. 

Another factor worth treating here is that some Conservative MPs will want to play no part in a post-election leadership contest. This race, with the runners and riders list longer than any in living memory, looks set to be singularly acrimonious — even by the standards of the Conservatives’ quickfire 2022 races. The legacy of recent regicides; a likely electoral reckoning; the expected interventions from a swathe of involuntarily unemployed ex-MPs; and a fractious and disenchanted base will make for a divisive contest. Having already witnessed four contests since 2016, many tired Tories will surely despair as to the prospect of another — and the party’s first in opposition since 2005. 

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to treat the full 59 outgoing Conservative MPs as a monolith, (not least of all because some will currently be mid-“chicken run”). Another pressing consideration for those who have decided to play no part in the next parliament will be the toll politics takes on one’s life. In recent weeks, MPs from all parties have spoken openly about the threats made against them, most prominently justice minister Mike Freer. Paul Scully and Ben Wallace, two departing ex-ministers, have also blamed Westminster for wrecking their marriages.

In this way, any conclusions drawn from a parliament’s MP exodus, of whatever party, are necessarily caveated. But the scale of the 2024 Conservative out-take is still striking. There is, in the end, no avoiding the brutal reality here that many outgoing MPs fear an electoral routing and/or what might come next.

Take the aforementioned Paul Scully. Scully, whose Sutton and Cheam constituency is a prime Liberal Democrat target, is a former minister and generally well-liked among his colleagues in Westminster. In this way, his decision to stand down — the reasoning for which was outlined on Twitter on Monday and later in a lengthy media round — is worth taking seriously. 

Of course, not all standing down statements can or should be subjected to detailed textual analysis — but Scully’s, borne of his deeply felt fatalism, defies any such rule. After the requisite nods to his constituency party and record of achievements, the former minister for London begins his diatribe thusly: 

Fuelled by division, the party has lost its way and needs to get a clear focus which I hope the budget can start to provide. It needs a vision beyond crisis management which can appeal to a wider section of the electorate including younger people.

If we just focus on core vote [sic], eventually that core shrinks to nothing. Talk more about housing; renting first because home ownership has drifted too far from so many. Show a real connection and empathy with other generations. Otherwise we risk pushing ourselves into an ideological cul-de-sac. The standard deviation model is true in politics. Most people are in the middle. We can work with the bell curve or become the bell-ends. We need to make that decision. I fear the electorate already is!

The problem for Rishi Sunak, here, is twofold: (1), in his observations as to the ideological and electoral trajectory of the Conservative Party, Scully is right; and, (2), in detailing his party’s problems so publicly, the statement is also highly revealing of the ill-discipline that besets Conservative politics. Convention dictates that outgoing MPs depart quietly and with subservient deference to the government of the day. Scully, however, has opted to bow out with a bang.

In this way, Scully’s Twitter broadside is also illustrative of a broader party-management problem for Sunak — one flowing from those MPs he has dispossessed of or denied high office. Scully, who ran for the Conservative nomination to challenge Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral election on 2 May, was snubbed by CCHQ during the initial shortlisting process. In his stead, the Conservative Party top brass selected an unknown barrister, a former David Cameron aide later accused of sexual misconduct and eventual winner Susan Hall. Hall, a populist-Brexiteer type, would have been at the forefront of Scully’s mind when he warned his party not to wander down an “ideological cul-de-sac”.

Scully’s pre-resignation swipe, therefore, is another way of conceptualising the It Will Only Get Worse thesis, which is ritually propounded by political journalists like myself and the Mail’s Dan Hodges. In the end, as we edge closer to an election, a further series of Conservative MPs can be expected to announce their departure from parliament. The more frustrated among them may choose to issue a resignation rant; indeed, after Scully, the prime minister might reasonably fear that a precedent has been set. 

And as the number of Conservative departees creeps higher and higher, it only seems a matter of time before it surpasses — and eventually dwarfs — the 1997 Tory out-take. The media commentary that will follow, and the fatigued vibes such an exodus exudes, will strengthen the feeling of malaise that envelops Conservative politics. (Materially, the lack of incumbency advantage in a series of marginal seats across the country will have a dire electoral impact in any case). 

And, lo, Rishi Sunak’s pathway to a 1992 election-style comeback gets narrower and steeper still — one Scully at a time. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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