Why has Jessica Lee become the fourth female MP from the 2010 intake to quit? The Erewash MP announced yesterday that she is standing down in 2015, saying ‘I have carefully considered by personal circumstances and responsibilities at this time, before taking this decision’. Friends of the popular Conservative say she is keen to return to her former job as a barrister, which is fair enough: in all walks of life people find that a career change doesn’t suit them as much as they thought. But is there a deeper problem here?
Some are arguing that this is illustrative of a woman problem in the party, and indeed the Conservative benches are not exactly stuffed with female MPs. But is it also that the life of an MP isn’t quite what some people expect, or are led to expect?
When backbenchers arrive in the Commons at the start of a Parliament, they share committee rooms until the offices are allocated. This means many friendship groups form between those camped in certain rooms, but it also marks the start of a chaotic time for MPs. They are not given advice on how to run a parliamentary office, and, having been promised an exciting career as a ‘turbocharged’ backbencher, and prospects for promotion and influence, find themselves trying to work out how to do their first job as a constituency MP with little more than the help of friendly veteran MPs to guide them. That is the case for MPs from all parties, but there is a mood amongst the new intake that being an MP hasn’t turned out to be all it was cracked up to be when they decided to be a candidate all those years ago. ‘I think a lot of new MPs haven’t enjoyed the role as much as they had hoped,’ one new intake MP remarked to me.
Perhaps more of those MPs would have enjoyed the role more if they felt properly used as backbenchers. There is still a sense that at the heart of the party there is a sizeable knot of MPs who are not confirmed Cameron haters, but neither are they the aggressively loyal Claire Perrys of the Conservative party. They are biddable, but still often left to their own devices. Attempts to keep them busy haven’t worked out as well as hoped: the Number 10 policy board, for instance, seemed like a good idea, but it is becoming clear that this isn’t the influential group it was sold as, and more of a conduit between backbenches and Prime Minister, which is useful in itself but still a mis-labelling. Perhaps the recent outbursts from Nadhim Zahawi and Jesse Norman’s departure were a result of frustration at this discovery.
But then there’s also the gruelling work of fighting in a marginal seat. Marginal Tories don’t go to as many parliamentary party meetings or receptions as their colleagues with cushy majorities because they’re often far busier in their constituencies trying to shore up support. Lee’s majority is only 2,501, and if she wasn’t much enjoying her job anyway, another exhausting fight in 2015 may have just looked like it wasn’t worth it.
Now, as I said, people realising a career change was a mistake isn’t unusual in any walk of life. But it does present a challenge to the Conservatives, who do want to attract and retain talented candidates with a wealth of experience in the world outside Westminster.
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