The days leading up to the 2019 general election campaign have brought numerous announcements of MPs deciding to leave parliament instead of contesting their seat. These include a significant number of people who are, or who have recently been, members of the cabinet, such as Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd.
We don’t yet know, and won’t finally know until nominations for the election have closed, exactly how many of those MPs elected in 2017 will not be candidates in 2019. Of course, every general election sees some examples of people standing down: whether because they have decided to retire after a long period in elected politics; to avoid an expected electoral defeat; because they have fundamental disagreements with the political direction of their parties; or for other reasons.
In 2019 we are seeing all of these scenarios playing out. There are, for instance, several veteran parliamentarians bowing out after decades in the political frontline, like Father of the House Ken Clarke, or Labour’s Ann Clwyd. Some of the more high-profile cases of younger politicians deciding not to stand again, though, have prompted questions about whether something is different this time around. Have the fierce political divisions over Brexit, and the often vitriolic criticism politicians have had to deal with, led to more people standing down than we would normally expect? And are these pressures bearing particularly heavily on particular types of politicians – such as pro-Remain Conservatives, or female politicians in particular?
At first glance, the overall numbers don’t seem remarkable. So far, nearly 60 incumbent MPs have announced that they will not be seeking re-election in 2019. Out of a House of Commons of 650 members that is not a huge proportion. Nor is it at all out of line with the numbers you would generally expect to stand down at a general election: indeed, it is still below a normal level. The UK’s leading expert on the study of MPs’ behaviour, Phil Cowley of Queen Mary, University of London, found that between the 1979 and 2015 general elections there was an average of 86 MPs standing down each time; in 2015 the final total was 90.
But 2019 is not a normal general election. It comes not after a parliament of four or five years, but barely two-and-a-half years. The last election was in June 2017 election and that itself followed on from an election just over two years previously. Given a much shorter parliament, we should expect lower numbers. The fairer comparison is probably of 2019 with 2017 – when only 31 incumbent MPs decided not to fight for re-election.
Not how many, but who?
As well as the absolute numbers, though, there does seem to be something a little different about the type of MPs standing down. Many of them are neither people retiring after a long career in politics, nor standing down to avoid the near certainty of being ousted by the voters. Instead, two main categories seem prominent.
The first is individuals, on both the Conservative and Labour benches, who have been out of step with the majority in their parties on the defining issue of the age – Brexit. Pro-Remain (or at least pro-soft Brexit) Conservatives, and Labour MPs who voted in parliament for some version of the Theresa May and Boris Johnson deals with the EU, are disproportionately represented among those stepping back from electoral politics.
The other group who are obviously over-represented among MPs standing down are younger women MPs, particularly among the Conservatives. Female MPs seem to attract a disproportionate amount of the more grotesque hostility directed against politicians, and at least some of them appear to have decided that enough is enough. Heidi Allen (first elected as a Conservative MP in 2015, and who has, during this year, also been a member of Change UK and now a Liberal Democrat) is among those who have spoken out about the impact of this on their lives, and those of their families.
Shaping the new parliament
The implications of the patterns of non-candidacy for the parties in parliament are fairly clear. The Conservative parliamentary party, however large or small it is after the election, will be much more unambiguously one favouring Leave, and a hard Brexit. The Labour parliamentary group will move in the opposite direction. So the parties in parliament will become more clearly defined along lines of Brexit – a “partisan sorting” that will follow what has happened in recent years among the electorate.
It doesn’t necessarily follow from that, though, that the UK will have a parliament better able to come to a decision on Brexit. That depends on the result of the election. It would be ironic, but is entirely plausible, that the election produces a parliament that has a slightly different line of division on Brexit but one that leaves MPs, in the aggregate, equally split.
The implications for British politics are more clearly troubling. Significant numbers of talented people, particularly among younger female representatives, will have left elected politics having decided that the atmosphere is too toxic for them. Parliament will be the poorer for their absence.