Are MPs really fleeing parliament in their droves, having decided that it’s just too mean and dysfunctional a place to stay? There have been so many resignations over the past couple of weeks that you might be forgiven for wondering if there will be any MPs, let alone women MPs, in Westminster at all after the next election.
There are currently 61 MPs who’ve said they won’t fight again at the next election, double the number who stepped down two years ago in 2017. If you combine these two snap elections, the figure only just passes the 90 who stood down in 2015, which was considered a fairly normal number. So there isn’t a horde of members deserting a sinking ship. There’s always a reasonable turnover of MPs retiring at the end of a long career, or slinking out after realising that they’re not going to achieve much. But two things make this cohort unusual: firstly, many of them such as Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Seema Kennedy, Gloria de Piero, Mark Lancaster and Owen Smith are in their political prime, with years of service and career highs ahead of them: 21 are leaving after less than a decade on the green benches and many are nowhere near retirement age. Secondly, a number of them have cited the toxic political environment as the reason to quit, something rarely mentioned in previous elections.
We are starting to see the rise of the ten year MP, who either goes into parliament thinking they’ll serve for a decade and then move on to another job, or realises while they’re there that they just don’t want to be doing this until they drop dead. This is far more common among the women than the men: 52 per cent are leaving after serving nine years or less, with just 25 per cent doing the same. One of them is Gloria de Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield. She explains: ‘We are all entering parliament much younger than before. I always thought I wanted to do this for ten years. That’s quite a long time to do a job, it’s the longest time I’ve ever done.’
A Tory who is leaving after the same amount of time agrees that ‘ten years may well become the norm because it is now such an intense job. I think it is more likely that the allure of becoming an MP will endure, but the habit of leaving will become contagious.’ This MP and many of her female colleagues have got so many better-paid options outside parliament that they owe it to their own sense of self-worth to go and take up more exciting career opportunities, rather than ‘staying to be miserable’. The MP adds, somewhat darkly: ‘I sometimes look around at some of the men in parliament and I think, no wonder you are staying because there is nothing else for you to do. The women who are leaving are doing so because they can.’
They’re also doing so because they’ve concluded that the sacrifices involved in being a member of parliament aren’t really worth it any more. It’s one thing if you believe you are doing god’s work in parliament and therefore you can justify not seeing your children and partner very often. Quite another if your side of the political argument is increasingly sidelined and you’ve spent the past year going round in circles on Brexit.
Teresa Pearce is one of those MPs who realised the trade-off just wasn’t worth it. She had convinced herself it was worth missing out on so much time with her grandchildren because being the MP for Erith and Thamesmead was so important. But last Christmas one of her daughters turned around to her and said: ‘Look mum, we know you’re busy and don’t have time to pick the kids up from school and so on. We get that and we are completely on board with that. But you don’t even seem to be enjoying it. What’s the point?’ Pearce realised she agreed. She says the job in the last few years had made her ‘jumpy and jittery’ and that she was starting to dread turning her iPad on each morning because of the abuse that she and others were receiving.
‘The abuse doesn’t help at all,’ she adds. ‘It is worse for women because there are people who hate MPs and there are people who hate women, and the Venn diagram between the two is quite large. “Woman” is now used as an insult, lots of people don’t like women with voices or who don’t do as they’re told.’ But it’s wrong to assume that abuse is only a problem for female MPs. When Mark Lancaster announced he was standing down as the Tory MP for Milton Keynes North, he wrote in his resignation letter that ‘the politics of today, with all its anger, abuse and in my own case, two threats on my life, is not the politics we want or need for our great country.’ Lancaster isn’t a lily-livered type. As an Army reservist he’s served in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Even as an MP he is the Deputy Commander of the Army’s information warfare unit 77th brigade. He turns out to be voicing the concerns of many of his male colleagues: one outgoing female MP told me that ‘the weirdest thing for me has been since I’ve announced I’m going, so many men have come upon to me with tears in their eyes and said “I wish I’d done the same.”’
The atmosphere in parliament has changed too. One departing member frets that: ‘Politics has become less professional, and more authoritarian. My party has been reduced to internal wrangling, and they’ve taken away from us the pride that went with being in a noted profession. Now we are just expected to show loyalty to the leader without thinking.’
Oddly, the name that comes up unprompted the most in conversations with these dejected MPs isn’t that of either party leader. It’s a previously obscure backbencher whom many people in SW1 might once have been forgiven for not recognising. ‘How long can someone remain sane and happy walking into a tearoom and being assailed by Mark f****** Francois?’ groans one Conservative. Mark ‘f******’ Francois seems to have become an emblem for many Tory and Labour MPs of how parliament has changed so that the awkward squad are now running the show. ‘We didn’t used to know who Mark Francois was,’ moans a Labour MP. ‘He just loves all of this, strutting around. I’ve had enough of that.’ For the Tories who are leaving, who are overwhelmingly of a Remain persuasion, the rise of this Brexiteer backbencher is a sign that their party has shifted. An MP who isn’t leaving but is seriously worried about the departure of so many good colleagues explains: ‘This will all be spun as just being about abuse on social media but it’s not that. Both the main political parties have deviated from being broad churches. There has been a narrowing of the boundaries of both the Labour party and the Conservative party. There is a lack of tolerance of other views.’
Alistair Burt lost the Tory whip last month for voting on a rebel motion to take control of the order paper. He has served for 32 years and is almost universally seen as being one of the nicest MPs in parliament. But he started to worry that if he stayed much longer, his demeanour might change. ‘I’m terribly afraid I might have become some sort of angry old bloke on the backbenches. I disagree profoundly with some of my colleagues but I am not going to sit there and resent the things they say. I am not going to stay around and see my nature change. I want to leave knowing I am in a better frame of mind.’
Burt has brought years of experience to parliament, as have the other 10 MPs who’ve spent more than three decades there. Ken Clarke, the Father of the House, is going after 49 years, while Geoffrey Robinson has been a Labour MP for 43. Given many MPs say it takes them a couple of years to work out what they’re doing, a couple of years more to work out how to do it, and many more years to actually understand how parliament works (and how to navigate your way around it), we are at risk of ending up with a very green generation of politicians who don’t have the experience to spot the mess hidden in some dense legislation, or the political antenna to realise their colleagues are about to repeat a mistake made 20 years ago by a previous administration. This is not a time for a novice, and yet the only sure outcome from this election is that parliament is going to have many more MPs who don’t have a clue what they’re doing.