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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing an exodus of MPs that will outstrip the number of losses his party suffered ahead of its landslide defeat in the 1997 general election as he heads to the polls this year.
Sunak is expected to go into the general election missing a number of veteran MPs and with his majority chipped away by a series of by-election losses and resignations stemming from scandal and protest over his government’s policies.
Fifty-six Conservative MPs have also announced they will step down at the general election, compared with 16 Labour MPs and nine from the Scottish National party, according to data from the House of Commons Library.
Many of the MPs fear they will lose their seats in the upcoming poll, while others are looking for jobs in the private sector.
Announcements increased following Sunak’s appointment as prime minister in October 2022. The level is on course to exceed the 72 Tory MPs who chose to not contest the 1997 general election, according to party insiders.
Conservative party headquarters this week denied asking MPs to stagger their announcements after it was reported that it feared a spate of imminent departures would hurt the party’s attempts to close a 19-point poll deficit.
“It’s hard to sell a product when a lot of the sales force is jumping ship,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “People are declaring they’re departing far earlier than is usually the case because the Tories are so far behind in the electoral cycle and things don’t appear to be closing anytime soon.”
In the past week three Tory MPs have announced they will not contest this year’s election, including Sir Bob Neill, chair of the House of Commons justice committee, and former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Nickie Aiken, one of the party’s deputy chairs, said on Wednesday she would leave parliament after a single term to accompany her husband in a move to Abu Dhabi.
Aiken told the Financial Times that the party had been in power for 14 years, with some MPs in post for two decades, and it was time for new blood. “You’ve got to have more people come in, you’ve got to look like the country we represent,” she said.
Though two-fifths of the Tory MPs stepping down this year took their seat before the 2010 general election, nearly a third have served for less than a decade — equivalent to two five-year terms — and another third were elected when the Conservatives returned to power 14 years ago.
Multiple by-elections, many of which have already been lost to opposition parties, have exacerbated the exodus, with four lost since Sunak took office as prime minister.
Two by-elections this month, in Kingswood and Wellingborough, will test Sunak’s ability to retain seats in the face of the rightwing Reform party and a Labour party that delivered double-digit swings to take Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire from the Tories late last year.
Other Tory MPs are eyeing up opportunities in the private sector, while former chancellor Sir Sajid Javid has been sounded out to chair Standard Chartered bank.
“People are weighing up their options. Some will be looking outside the commons at what their options are, particularly where their chances of getting re-elected aren’t that high,” said Philip Nye, a data scientist at the Institute for Government, a think-tank.
Nye said that looming boundary changes had also forced MPs to reassess their prospects in the coming election, with some expected to carry narrower majorities going into a tight election.
Bale said former premier Liz Truss’s launch last week of a rightwing group, Popular Conservatism, also signalled that the party was gearing up for potential life in opposition.
“There’s a degree to which most people looking at the opinion polls realise that the game is up and now the game is about the battle for the soul of the party post-election,” he added.