MPs are back in Parliament today after the Christmas recess, and for some of them, this is the first real week of work after spending their first few days in the Commons reeling after winning their seats. New MPs are still waiting to be given offices, and are starting to hire new staff so they can start up with constituency work and trying to understand what’s happening next on the parliamentary agenda.
All new members go through a period of trying to work out what sort of MP they’re going to be, but it’s a particularly interesting question for the Conservative MPs who won former Labour ‘red wall’ seats in the December election. Shortly after they arrived in parliament, I interviewed three new ‘red wall’ MPs, and they told me that they would be focusing on Brexit and local issues to begin with. How they manage the latter is rather less clear.
Though the seats they represent have rejected the Labour Party, these new MPs may find that their constituents are still used to having a member of parliament who responds to their problems in a certain way. Opposition MPs have much more scope to criticise government policies which they learn from their constituency surgeries are causing trouble. But if you’re in the governing party, you need a subtle approach: your senior colleagues aren’t going to take kindly to you sounding off in public about a benefit policy that is causing hardship, or insufficient funding for the local school. Sometimes MPs end up telling their constituents that they actually agree with both the principle of the policy and the effect it is having on the person sat in front of them in the surgery. More commonly, a member will suggest that this is an example of the system not working as it should, and promise to raise this glitch in the system with ministerial colleagues, who will be more likely to listen to them given they’re in the same party.
I suspect, though, that the way these new MPs will adopt the same stance as the Conservatives did nationally in the recent election: pretend all the problems are someone else’s fault. Boris Johnson’s pitch was that he would be running a brand new government, not a continuation of the past nine years of Tories in power. To that end, he and his colleagues were happy to say during the campaign that not enough had been done to support public services and not enough attention paid to the economy in northern towns. This gives an MP in a seat used to being represented by Labour MPs plenty of scope to criticise the policies introduced by their own party – for now, at least. At some point, the Tories will have to start owning the effects of their reforms, and then it gets rather more complicated.