I know it feels like 100 years ago now, but if you can possibly cast your mind back to the eve of the 2019 General Election, you might recall there was an unprecedented rash of preemptive exits as a wipe-out of the Westminster Remoaners beckoned following months of undemocratic chaos when they tried their damndest to reverse the 2016 mandate delivered by the people. The fragile majority Boris Johnson had inherited from Theresa May was whittled down to a minority as numerous Tory Members crossed the floor of the House and the PM removed the whip from 21 rebels; some even formed their own Party in conjunction with Labour MPs dismayed at the Momentum dominance within Corbyn’s Labour – anyone recall Change UK? – and some relocated to the Lib Dems; but all were desperate to prevent the General Election Boris was eager to call in order to sort out the problem once and for all, preferring the red herring of a Second Referendum. When it became clear this wasn’t feasible, there were even characteristically bonkers suggestions such as the one proposed by the Greens’ Caroline Lucas, which suggested an unelected emergency administration should be formed with her (naturally) at the centre of it. All of these moves served as a blatant indication as to just how much the Remainer elite within Parliament mistrusted the British public to do the right thing.
When those parties with the loudest Remoaner voices were summarily rejected at the ballot-box in the May 2019 European elections – obliterated by Nigel Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party – many of them belatedly realised the electorate were not going to look warmly upon them come the next national vote. No wonder they were against it. However, when Boris finally managed to call his General Election in the wake of the proroguing of Parliament, and Brits found themselves confronted by a welcome democratic disruption to the annual assault of Christmas, the most blinkered and diehard still imagined the British people would come round to their way of thinking; Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson was unashamedly candid in her promise that her party would do its utmost to scrap Brexit if it found itself holding the balance of power. In the end, Swinson lost her seat. But there were others who never even got to that stage; eager to avoid a ‘Portillo Moment’, these were the ones who bottled it before their constituents had the opportunity to have their say.
Once the December Election was given the go-ahead, you suddenly couldn’t move for MPs voluntarily walking the plank in anticipation of the public shoving them off it. Sure, it’s not uncommon for veterans to announce their intention to stand down on the eve of an Election, but never before had so many Bright Young Things done likewise; a fair few had been earmarked as ones-to-watch, with some (in the case of the governing Conservatives) rising through the ranks to Cabinet posts with such speed that they were seen as potential future leaders. Amber Rudd, Justin Greening, Rory Stewart and Jo Johnson were some of the younger quitters from the Tories who jumped before the electorate pushed, whilst Jezza’s 15-minute challenger Owen Smith did likewise from Labour ranks. Some, such as the Scottish Conservative saviour Ruth Davidson, had quit upon Boris Johnson gaining the keys to No.10, whereas Tom ‘Bunter’ Watson got out because his embarrassing association with serial paedophile liar Carl Beech had ended his hopes of the Labour leadership; incidentally, both Davidson and Watson now sit in the Lords, having a hand in the passing of legislation without being answerable to the electorate. Nice work if you can get it.
Although some of the most prominent Remoaners did indeed have their Portillo Moments come the General Election – Jo Swinson, Chuck Umunna, Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen being the most notable – most had gone before the public had their say. And whilst their decision to stand down at a relatively young age (for an MP) was undeniably influenced by the humiliating drubbing they anticipated, it also highlighted just how much being a people’s representative is little more than another impressive notch on a CV for many of today’s intake into Parliament. It’ll look good when fishing for the directorship of a hedge fund company, I guess. Whatever happened to public service? Dennis Skinner may have lost his seat in 2019, but he’d put in almost half-a-century at Westminster; Tony Benn had surrendered a peerage and gone all the way to changing the law in order for him to continue as an MP, so committed was he to the cause of public service; these guys put the hours in and were there for more than a chance to appear on ‘Strictly’ or join Matt Hancock in the jungle one day. Indeed, as even Russell Brand pointed out on a recent YT video, how low have we sunk that the only place in which the opportunity to confront the former Health Secretary with the consequences of his pandemic actions is not in the Commons or on ‘Question Time’, but on an ITV reality show, where he’s grilled not by Andrew Neil but by Boy George?
Apparently, there was even a recent reality show in which two past political figures who’ve never stood for election in their lives – Alastair Campbell and Baroness Warsi – acted as the expert judges overseeing a bunch of ‘Apprentice’-style wannabes competing to become an imaginary Prime Minister; as far as I’m aware, Liz Truss was not amongst the contenders. Although I didn’t see the programme, I’ve a pretty good idea of the kind of show it was – after all, most TV produced in the name of ‘entertainment’ today follows a formula based on one hit show that is then reproduced endlessly; but maybe a public utterly exhausted with mendacious MPs evading every question put to them on a serious political programme see this route as the way forward for our elected representatives? And maybe our elected representatives are thinking along similar lines. It could perhaps offer one explanation as to why the public respond more to voting a celebrity out of the jungle than they do to voting candidates in or out of office; and it could also explain why those candidates view their political careers as merely another job they do for a bit before looking for something else.
Moreover, this situation could equally explain why so many recent recruits to the Commons Chamber come across as so lightweight and uninspiring compared to most of yesteryear’s big beasts. The intense level of commitment and the hunger to change society for the better is simply not there anymore, nor is the unswerving conviction that they actually have it in them to do so. Last time round, those that abandoned ship before the 2019 iceberg hit did so because they knew nobody would offer them a lifeboat; this time round, with polls pointing towards a similar catastrophe for the Conservative Party as a whole (rather than just its Remainer rebels), some have already revealed their indifference to public service by announcing their intentions to stand down before the date of the next General Election has even been decided.
The most invigorating incident of the 2019 Election from a Tory perspective was the collapse of Labour’s Red Wall and the once-unimaginable capture of eternal Labour strongholds by young Conservative upstarts; yet, the casual approach to commitment so prevalent in careerist politicians who seem to view their Honourable Member status as no different from being on the board of a financial institution or some soulless corporation surfaced again when 29-year-old Dehenna Davison, who won Bishop Auckland for the Tories in 2019, announced she’d be standing down next time round. One could argue Boris blew all the advantages that came with the Red Wall seats and that the chances of Davison’s re-election may have been rendered slim as a result, but it still seems to suggest Parliament is no more than ‘work experience’ for the young MP passing through en route to a more profitable position, as though it were some gap-year assignment in an African village; if that is indeed the case, the electorate will be better off without any of them; but one suspects whoever succeeds them will be cut from the same transient cloth.
© The Editor