Matt Hancock has just a few days left on I’m a Celebrity before he returns from the safety of the Australian jungle back to the more poisonous environment of the Palace of Westminster.
But this week, more Conservative MPs are pondering ways to get out of there – as a deadline approaches to give notice that they intend to stand at the next election.
MPs are already predicting as many as 50 colleagues may decide not to stand in 2024, having looked at the state of the polls. Some are toying with whether to stay till the end of the parliament or jump sooner – others holding out hope for a final reshuffle to get a chance at ministerial office.
Conservative MPs have been given a deadline of 5 December to declare whether they plan to stand down at the next election. The date coincides with the final decision on boundaries for the next election, so that Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) can start to look at the full electoral picture with new constituencies.
Chloe Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, and Will Wragg, the chair of the public administration select committee, have said they will stand down. On Friday Sir Gary Streeter announced he would not contest the next general election after 25 years in the Commons, followed shortly afterwards by Dehenna Davison, the levelling-up minister and MP for the “red wall” seat of Bishop Auckland.
Smith is 40, Wragg is 34 and Davison is 29, all with a significant amount of their professional lives still to come, but they have still decided they want out. The strains of the past five years of turmoil have been great for so many MPs – changes of prime minister, Brexit, the pandemic and party infighting. And all are on course to lose their seats on the current polling trajectory.
But some Tories predict that MPs such as Davison, Smith and Wragg are likely to be younger outliers and that there will be a major generational shift in the party, with numerous veteran MPs opting to stand down.
“A third of us were new to parliament at the last election, but there’s a lot of Tory MPs who have been here 15 or 20 years and feel they’ve done their time,” one said. “Some of those are in their 60s and 70s. If they go, they’ll get a good pension and be able to do the odd bit of work here and there.”
MPs who are still ambitious but feel their seats are on shaky territory are beginning to reach out to recruitment consultants, headhunters and former firms to try to get a sense of the post-electoral employment picture.
One long-serving Conservative backbencher said they had few illusions about their fate – or any plans for what might happen if, as expected, they lost their seat. “My constituency tends to change with the government, so it doesn’t look that great for me at the moment,” they said.
“But it’s not like I’m alone. Some colleagues are looking at other things they can do, but quite a lot are just keeping their heads down and getting on with their jobs. Everyone realises that the best we can probably expect in the election is damage limitation.”
Another MP said that they expected a number of colleagues to depart now they realised there was no longer a prospect of serving in government. “There are colleagues who have been passed over for ministerial jobs for years and now it’s getting to the point where they won’t serve – in which case, why stay?” one minister put it bluntly.
Others are concerned about Keir Starmer cracking down on MPs having second, often lucrative, jobs in addition to their parliamentary work. “You need to bear in mind that if we stay on and end up in opposition, the Labour government is likely to get really tough on second jobs,” one said.
Some have even discussed whether they should stand down early – even if that meant the party facing difficult byelections – thinking they would be more employable now.
“After the 1997 election nobody wanted to employ a former Tory MP,” one said. “It will be the same this time round, so people are thinking about getting out early while they still have some currency.”
Many have convinced themselves that life on the outside would be easier. “Even if the job was not that high-profile or interesting, I could earn three times as much and still spend all weekend at home with my kids,” one minister said.
More MPs are expected to announce departures before the deadline, but a number of Conservative MPs say they are likely to delay their decisions until later, to give themselves more time to decide.
Rishi Sunak could yet conduct another reshuffle, and one MP said they were waiting to see whether there was anything on offer for them for what they called “my last two years in parliament” before expecting to lose their seat.
“Rishi keeps dangling a reshuffle over our heads and of course that’s something that would be more attractive in the outside world, but if you say you’re going now, you won’t be getting a ministerial job.”
One said they had all but decided to go at the next election though had told CCHQ they were staying. “Under Liz [Truss] I would have gone like a shot, but I think Rishi’s got a chance of holding maybe 50 more seats than she would have done,” one senior backbencher said.
Others already have a new life back in government having thought their ministerial careers were now over – and might reconsider their future.
“I think there are some including Dom [Raab] and Michael [Gove] who might have decided to look for new careers after 2024, but now they are back in the tent that decision is not going to come any time soon,” the backbencher said.
Labour advisers report an avalanche of attention from recruitment consultants and lobbying firms, desperate to hire those with an inside view of the party.
“The phone just hasn’t stopped, it’s doing my head in. Even worse is people emerging out of the woodwork trying to get commissions and jobs,” one senior Starmer adviser said. Conservatives are likely to find the opposite is true.