Why Tory MPs are fleeing ‘corrosive’ Westminster politics

Boris Johnson speaks at his final Prime Minister's Questions after a period in which UK politics became more 'corrosive'. AFP

If the art of success in politics is surrounding yourself with competent, committed lieutenants then Rishi Sunak should at the outset of his premiership hope to hold on to his brightest talents with the promise of victories to come.

Therefore, the loss of MPs such as Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, along with other smart, young Tories somewhat diminishes the British Prime Minister’s aura of representing better times ahead for the governing party.

You are reading: Why Tory MPs are fleeing ‘corrosive’ Westminster politics

Like many Conservative MPs, Mr Ross has been buffeted and bruised by the extraordinary year of politics, from the iniquities of Boris Johnson to the follies of Liz Truss.

He is among the 15 Tories who have announced that they will not be standing at the next election. Politics, he told The National, has become “more corrosive over this period”.

The leavers include a handful of veterans but a concern is the young high-fliers, including a minister, and two former cabinet members, Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock.

Accusations are raised, and indeed accepted by a number of Tories, that their departing colleagues see electoral defeat as inevitable, along with loss of their seats, and that now is the time to make plans outside parliament.

Corrosive politics

Mr Ross had chosen what some might call the cut-throat politics of Scotland over what had once been the gentility of Westminster, as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in Holyrood.

He departs having fought a brutal election for his Moray seat that saw him remarkably oust Angus Robertson, the former Scottish National Party leader in Westminster, in 2017.

Mr Ross, who secured a majority of 513 in the 2019 election, has a refreshingly straightforward, honest manner, a characteristic possibly moulded from being a professional football referee for World Cup internationals as well as the Scottish Cup Finals.

While Mr Ross, 39, announced two years ago he would not stand to fight his Westminster seat, he will continue as a Member of the Scottish Parliament leading the Tories.

In an interview with The National, he has distanced himself from the accusations of others that people are abandoning the party with electoral defeat looming. But he did admit British politics had become more difficult and divisive.

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the Tory conference in October. PA

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the Tory conference in October. PA

“I think politics has got more corrosive over this period,” he said, speaking in Westminster. “I think we’ve probably experienced it earlier than the rest in Scotland following the [2014 Scottish independence] referendum and divisive politics is now more common across the country.

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“I think colleagues are just fed up that they go home and get shouted out in the street and that there is some pretty terrible stuff on social media. They think actually that they could probably earn as much outside politics with none of the hassle.”

Mr Ross, who is married with two young children, said he had previously confirmed as Conservative Party leader in Scotland “that I would only serve in the dual roles until the next general election”.

“I will then concentrate more on helping Scotland and the Conservatives in Scotland,” he added.

Defeat inevitable

But other Conservatives feel that being so far behind Labour in the polls means election defeat is inevitable and it is better to plan now for having to leave behind the £84,000 salary along with the expenses and privileges.

“I think part of it is that we can see the writing on the wall,” said one of the leaving MPs, who did not want to be named. “While being in government is very stimulating, being in opposition is not.”

The departing MP also suggested that several colleagues from the Red Wall constituencies, Labour seats that fell to Conservatives in the 2019 election, who were highly vulnerable, had ignored last Monday’s deadline to announce their departure.

“I heard there’s some that didn’t respond by the deadline but almost certainly aren’t going to stand again probably because they just don’t expect to get in.

“They stood in 2019 because they were happy to help the party but then surprisingly they’ve become an MP and now can’t be bothered with all the hassle that comes with it. Then there are other ones like Sajid Javid who is a loss but he can see there’s no route back into government yet he’s still young enough to go and do something else.”

The new boundary changes to constituencies, which mean some MPs will almost certainly lose their majority, have been given as another reason for members’ departure.

“That’s prompted a number of colleagues to announce the decision they might have made over the summer, which is understandable,” said one MP who is remaining in parliament. “Some of them are bit old but when you look at some of the younger ones you do ask questions.”

Dehenna Davison, the 'levelling up' minister, has announced her departure from Westminster at the next election. PA

Dehenna Davison, the ‘levelling up’ minister, has announced her departure from Westminster at the next election. PA

Departing youth

Foremost among the youthful departures is Dehenna Davison, 29, minister for “levelling up”, who bluntly announced her departure, stating: “I haven’t had anything like a normal life for a twentysomething”. She also wanted a “life outside of politics”.

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Another departing MP is the highly experienced minister Chloe Smith, 40, who became an MP aged 27 and was work and pensions secretary under Ms Truss.

She is followed by William Wragg, an ardent Brexit supporter who has been a prominent backbencher, also 27 when elected in 2015.

“I can understand Dehenna’s reason as it is a strange life for a 29-year-old,” said a veteran Tory MP, David Jones. “This illustrates that maybe people need more of a hinterland before they stand for parliament. This career MP thing is a relatively recent phenomenon.”

He also argued that there had been no “mass exodus from the green benches” and only 15 departures out of 356 Conservatives was not a significant amount.

Tributes

The leaving MPs include one of the Tories’ most respected and liked members, Charles Walker. It was his rebuke to the “inexcusable behaviour” during a chaotic vote on fracking that precipitated the end of Ms Truss’s government.

The former Welsh secretary Robert Buckland paid tribute to Mr Walker and other departing MPs. “Knowing all the people concerned they have been excellent MPs and valued friends,” he said. “They’re going to be much missed. We understand personal and individual reasons for standing down and clearly we’re sad to see to see them go.”

Conservative MP William Wragg, who is leaving parliament aged just 34. AFP

Conservative MP William Wragg, who is leaving parliament aged just 34. AFP

Writing on wall?

An indication that some may consider leaving because of the dire polls came from former health secretary and jungle reality show contestant Matt Hancock, who announced his departure on Wednesday.

His letter to the Prime Minister suggested that he thought Labour might be in power for at two terms, or 10 years. “The revival of modern Conservatism over the next decade will I suspect take place as much outside parliament as much as in it,” he wrote.

But Mr Buckland disagreed that the election result was immovable. “I think it’s premature to say that this is evidence the Conservatives think they’re going to lose the next election,” he said. “Two years ago Labour were in the doldrums doing very, very badly so things could easily change.”

But a more direct reason for the early departures came from a senior Conservative official. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” he said. “People are running for the hills because nobody thinks that we are going to win. Everyone’s thinking ‘when do I jump?’ because it’s a question of do I want to be on the market now or in 18 months’ time with hundreds of other unemployed Tories.”

The other departing MP said even one spell of five years in opposition was “too long for some people”.

He added: “Certainly those who have had trappings of power, really don’t do really fancy sitting on the backbenches in opposition. When you’re totally out of the loop, people are not interested.”

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