In desperation for Rishi Sunak, Tory MPs rush for lifeboats
Some Tory lawmakers are plotting to ditch their constituents for safer seats in Britain’s upcoming general election in anticipation of heavy losses for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s party.
In recent days, Tory MPs have informed their local associations and party headquarters whether they intend to stand again in the next election, which is due to take place before January 2025. With an unusually high number of Tory MPs expected to resigning, the prospect of swapping seats have become a key talking point, even more so than in recent years, according to MPs and officials familiar with those conversations.
The regular boundary adjustment process that will come into effect in the next election adds another motive, and sometimes justification, for some MPs to swap. The changes this time are stark for some Tories, compounded by the dire state of the polls, meaning even some relatively safe seats are now at risk.
The scramble of individual MPs to save their jobs has been a controversial feature of British politics for decades, and it becomes particularly pronounced when MPs begin to think they are contemplating the final days of a government.
The mood of Tory MPs in fringe constituencies this week suggests little optimism about Sunak’s ability to overturn the party’s poor record in the polls over the next two years. Towards the end of John Major’s premiership in the 1990s, Tony Blair’s Labor opposition branded Tory MPs fighting for more secure seats ‘chickens’ and the process became known as of chicken coop.
MPs who try to swap seats tend to say they do so out of necessity due to boundary changes, the regular changes to constituency boundaries, due to changing demographics and demographics. But critics see the chicken run as the ultimate panic move of a career politician.
With the writing on the wall in the opinion polls, they are saying goodbye to the people they were elected to represent and fleeing to a more politically convenient place to save their own skins, according to this argument. In the 2019 election, Tory minister Mims Davies already gave up her Eastleigh seat in Hampshire – usually a Liberal Democrat fringe – for wealthy Mid Sussex, which has been Tory since its inception.
The process is fierce and full of obfuscation as MPs weigh up their futures and jostle for position, making for one of the most entertaining belt tales obsessed with political anoraks. MPs will regularly let their association believe they are running again, only to change their minds later.
Current Boundaries Commission proposals would see 59 existing parliamentary seats change by 40% or more, meaning many seats could look very different to what they were in 2019, when the Conservatives won their biggest majority since a generation.
Among the MPs most affected are Gavin Williamson, the former minister who resigned in the first weeks of the government of Rishi Sunak, whose seat in South Staffordshire merges with that in South Dudley. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s Wyre and Preston North constituency is also in jeopardy.
A battle is underway between Tory MPs to become the candidate for the Bishop Auckland seat vacated by Dehenna Davison, the 29-year-old incumbent who has decided to quit politics, according to people familiar with the talks.
The seat in the northeast of England is seen as a relatively good prospect for the Tories, although polls suggest many working-class voters in the north will return to Labour. The Boundaries Commission is proposing to dissolve the neighboring seat of North West Durham currently held by fellow Tory MP Richard Holden, increasing the concentration of potential Tory votes on offer.
At the other end of the country, there is a big contest among Tory MPs to take on a desirable new constituency called Weald of Kent, which is expected to have a strong Tory voter base. Party figures suggest Greg Clark, whose nearby Tunbridge Wells has been heavily targeted by the Liberal Democrats because of its largely voting population, is among the candidates. Asked to comment, Clark told Bloomberg he was happy at Tunbridge Wells.
Windsor’s main seat, home to the royal family and with a Conservative majority of 20,000, is vacant as its MP Adam Afriyie quits politics. Tory MPs suggest Ben Spencer could jump from Runnymede and Weybridge to Surrey. Spencer did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Raab under pressure
Embattled Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who is being investigated over bullying allegations he denies, is also under pressure at neighbors Esher and Walton. The Liberal Democrats are investing resources to win the seat, believing the border changes make them more likely to win it. This has led Tory MPs to speculate that Raab could move to Runnymede. A Raab spokesman denied he was considering it.
There are also problems for Tories in south-east London, where boundary changes could leave Bromley’s Bob Neill and Beckenham’s Bob Stewart with decisions to make about their future.
A senior Tory official has joked that the party should hire a fleet of helicopters to ferry its MPs across the country as they search for new constituencies. But another was less jovial, commenting that with the polls where they are now, there will be no safe seats at all in the next election.
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