Tonight at midnight, something will change in Parliament. All the MPs who lost their seats in last week’s elections will have their passes cancelled, to be replaced by a pass giving them more limited access to the Parliamentary estate. They’ve been sneaking through Westminster over the past few days to clear out their offices and make their staff redundant. Some look eerily cheery as they do this. Others scuttle along, avoiding conversation. As the new intake of MPs look up excitedly at the ornate ceilings and take pictures of Big Ben on their phones, swelling a little with excitement and pride, the old MPs keep their eyes fixed firmly down on their shoes as they finish up in the Palace of Westminster.
One Lib Dem MP was so confident he’d be back that he left his coat on its peg in the members’ cloakroom. He lost his seat.
Some will have been expecting it, and will have made arrangements for their future. Others tried not to think about what might happen if the electorate turned against them, as it might slow down their frenzied last minute campaigning. But now they’ve gone through that awful ritual of standing stony-faced in a school gym next to the Monster Raving Loony candidate at 4am while someone else accepts the job of representing their constituency for five years, they’re trying to work out what on earth to do. I’ve heard so many ex-MPs saying ‘I just don’t know what I’m doing next’ as they stand with colleagues who survived and who are trying not to appear too happy.
Some people might struggle to feel too much sympathy for politicians who go into this mug’s game knowing they could lose their seat at some point (though perhaps some of them didn’t know enough about that risk, and didn’t campaign hard enough), and who can get a redundancy package of up to £33,530 when they do lose, as well as ‘winding up’ costs for closing their office and so on. Some weren’t that bothered about Parliament or about serving their constituents, though that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll lose: some MPs who have a similar attitude returned to Westminster with fat majorities once again. Others worked their socks off, doing everything from clever campaigns to fixing the drains, lost out on a lot of time with their families, but lost their seat anyway because all their colleagues were losing their seats in an historic turn against their party.
On the tube yesterday, I caught sight of an unseated MP standing on the down escalator, taking him away from Westminster. He let out a big, shoulder-heaving sigh and stared philosophically ahead. He’ll be fine. They all should be, whether they try to come back, or go off and do something else: ‘MP’ looks pretty handy on your CV, after all – though many seem to struggle outside the bubble, latching on to bitty portfolio careers while talking a lot about their time in Parliament, or going through very miserable periods indeed.
Actually, the sighing MP in question could afford to look reasonably philosophical as he managed to leave more of a mark in Parliament than a coat swinging sadly on a hook in the cloakroom. The ones who did bother with all the gritty stuff, even if they weren’t frontbenchers, will have helped constituents with heartbreaking immigration and housing cases, and may have forced a change in government policy, no matter how small, through their own campaigns using questions in the chamber and on paper. Others spent five years whingeing that the party leadership hadn’t noticed them and that journalists never wrote about them, while failing to come up with a single idea for how they could change things for their constituents or a group of people who were being hard done by as a result of one policy or another.
As the new intake look around their new offices, and marvel at the beauty of Parliament (tip: Westminster Hall is the most magical place first thing in the morning when no-one else is there and the only sound is the clip clop of your own shoes across the huge, ancient flagstones), they should start thinking about what they’ll have to remember the five years by if their voters turf them out in 2020. The only thing sadder than an unseated MP is one who didn’t bother to make their mark while they had the chance.