All university admissions tutors know about single-termers. They are those students – some badly advised and intellectually bewildered, others more devious – who decide around mid-November that they want to change degrees, study elsewhere or just drop out. They’re a pain, but higher education is a complex world and, after all, they are young. MPs, you might suppose, would be different. But in this parliament anyway, you’d be dead wrong.
The 2015 general election is the one which even the experts won’t make predictions about. Well, here’s one for starters: despite this parliament running its full five-year term, far fewer MPs will retire than in 2010. It’s not the riskiest forecast. First, we’ve known the likely election date for years, so the usually late flurry of MPs in safe seats being bribed by some vanity-appealing job or bauble into making way for younger, leadership-friendly candidates has mostly already happened.
Second, however you rate the current 55th UK Parliament, at least they haven’t been as big a collective embarrassment as the 54th, who went down in history as the Rotten Parliament. Rotten to the proverbial core, the official scale of the expenses scandal required nearly 400 MPs to repay us taxpayers £1.2 million for illegitimate claims for everything from Gordon Brown’s cleaning costs to moat cleaning and duck houses.
Some had offended so blatantly that they were prosecuted or deselected. Many more grudgingly paid up, reciting the mantra about the system being to blame and that they’d done nothing wrong. But just in case their voters failed to fully understand their predicament, they grabbed the ludicrously generous retirement offer available – £60,000+ “parachute” payments and final-salary pensions – and ran.
So the expenses scandal ratcheted 2010’s retirement total up to 149, nearly twice the average for recent parliaments – and, in all likelihood, for this one. Even with our seriously over-sized House of Commons, it still takes most aspirants a fair amount of time, effort, sacrifice and luck to get in. Once there, they tend to stay – voluntary retirees for an average of over 20 years or four full-length parliaments.
Most MP retirements fall into one of three groups: seniority, sin, or stash. Seniority is self-explanatory. If you’ve been at Westminster since, say, the early Thatcher years, you’ve made your public service contribution and amply earned your retirement, in the already overcrowded Lords or wherever.
Sin is wider ranging. In 2010 it was expenses, this time round it’s sex and violence: sexting pictures of one’s ministerial genitalia (Brooks Newmark, Braintree); “unwelcome sexual approaches” to a constituent (Mike Hancock, Portsmouth South); inappropriate relations with a 17-year-old girl, plus repeated arrests for drunkenness, assault, and “altercations” (Eric Joyce, Falkirk).
Stash, too, is a reflection of our times. The election will see the retirement of a slew of particularly Conservative ex-ministers in their fifties, who sense their frontbench careers are behind them, and hope their ministerial experience will open doors to some lucrative and not too taxing (in every sense) paydays.
This parliament, though, has produced an entirely novel fourth group of retirees: single-termers. There are ten so far, all in marginal seats. All but one are Conservatives, and disproportionately Conservative women: one in nine of the party’s 36 new women MPs.
Louise Mensch, compulsive tweeter and already perhaps the best-known Conservative backbencher, was first, resigning after barely two years from her highly marginal Corby seat due to the difficulties of balancing the demands of politics with those of her young family.
Mensch’s New York-based husband volunteered that she also reckoned she’d “get killed at the next election” – unsupportively prophetic, given Labour’s sweeping win in the ensuing by-election with a 12.7% swing, where 2% would have sufficed.
Seven of the eight Conservative seats subsequently vacated by single-term retirees (or eight of nine, if you include Lib Dem-held Brent Central, strictly a new constituency, rather than a new MP) are Labour “battleground target seats”. They are also the focus of a specific “Operation Flight” campaign by the Blairite pressure group, Progress.
The exception, incidentally, is South Thanet, target of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, rather than Labour, and now of comedian Al Murray – although, contrary to some reports, their Conservative opponent will be Craig Mackinlay, rather than “the incumbent, Laura Sandys” who announced her decision to stand down more than a year ago.
Returning to Labour’s targets, all seven (or eight) would be lost by the Conservatives in May with a pro-Labour swing since 2010 of just 6% – less than half that in Corby, and, as it happens, precisely what this week’s New Statesman’s Poll of Polls is showing, with the two parties neck-and-neck on 32% and 33%.
With first-term incumbents generally assumed to start with at least a slight advantage over their challengers, one can only guess at what the Conservative leadership is making of the new single-termer phenomenon.