Exodus of Tory MPs under Sunak breaks 1997 record

The influx of resignations follow Rishi Sunak's announcement of the July 4 elections
The influx of resignations follow Rishi Sunak's announcement of the July 4 elections - EDWARD MASSEY/CCHQ

The number of Tory MPs standing down at the general election has surpassed the Conservative Party record set in 1997 when Labour won a landslide under Sir Tony Blair.

Michael Gove was among six MPs on Friday to announce that they would not seek re-election, taking the total of Tories stepping down to 78 in the wake of Rishi Sunak triggering a snap summer poll.

It comes after Greg Clark, the former Cabinet minister, Sir David Evennett, the MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford, and Craig Mackinlay, the Tory MP for South Thanet who only made his return to Parliament this week after he lost his arms and legs to sepsis, also said they will not seek re-election.

Dame Andrea Leadsom, a former business secretary and Tory leadership candidate, confirmed on Friday night that she would not be standing.

On Friday night, Mr Gove called time on a memorable 19-year career as the MP for Surrey Heath, during which he has held six different roles in the cabinet under four prime ministers.

In a letter shared on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Gove, 56, cited the “toll” of serving in office and said it was time for a “new generation to lead”.

In a show of support for Rishi Sunak as campaigning for the general election gets under way, he added: “We have a Prime Minister who I know exemplifies the patriotism, hard work, sense of selfless service and clarity of purpose which are the very best virtues of our party.”

Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, was quick to insist there was nothing “unusual” about the scale of the exodus ahead of the general election.

But there are fears the Conservatives are on track for a similarly heavy defeat to the loss endured by Sir John Major in 1997, and Mr Sunak continues to trail Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party by around 20 points in the polls.

Some MPs planned to stagger news of their resignations over the coming months having anticipated an autumn election. But Mr Sunak’s surprise decision to call for a July election on Wednesday has prompted several prominent Tories to confirm they will quit politics rather than contest their seats.

Mr Clark, who has been the MP for Tunbridge Wells since 2005, said that sitting in the House of Commons is a “five-year commitment” and that it was “time to pass the baton on”.

Mr Mackinlay revealed he faced further operations to help his recovery from sepsis, adding: “It would be difficult to withstand the rigours of an all-out election campaign, a campaign that I’d always wish to lead from the front.

“Thereafter, upon being re-elected it would be difficult for me to sustain 70 to 80-hour working weeks which were the norm prior to my illness.”

Sitting ministers including Huw Merriman, a frontbencher at the Department for Transport, and Jo Churchill, the employment minister, have also announced they will step aside following the election being called.

On Friday morning, Sir John Redwood, who was the head of Margaret Thatcher’s No 10 policy unit and a former cabinet minister, ruled himself out of the forthcoming contest in Wokingham, where he has been the MP since 1987.

In a message to constituents, he said: “I have other things I wish to do… It has been a privilege to represent Wokingham in nine parliaments.”

Mr Shapps sought to downplay the record-breaking total, telling Sky News: “I don’t think it is actually all that unusual. You often get a lot standing down at election time.

“You often get this illusion that there are more standing down from the governing side and of course, the good reason for that is there are by definition more MPs on the governing side.”

Other Tory “big beasts” standing aside rather than fighting the next national poll include Theresa May, the former prime minister, Ben Wallace, the former defence secretary, and Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid, two former chancellors.

In her final speech in the Commons on Friday, Ms May said of being an MP: “I think it is the best job in the world. And of course, it has its frustrations – particularly has its frustrations when you’re in Government and people don’t vote on your own side, three times.

“But there we are, we get over these things, we carry on, we come back. But it is a really important job, and the key to it is to represent constituents.

“And I worry there are too many people in politics who think it is about them, their ambitions, their careers and not about the people they serve… We are there to serve our country and to serve our constituents.”

Dominic Raab, the former justice secretary, will not seek re-election in Esher and Walton, which is being redrawn as part of the boundary review.

He had a majority of less than 3,000 at the last general election and his seat is one of those being targeted by the Liberal Democrats as they seek to unseat Tories in the “Blue Wall”.

The departure of Sir John Redwood marks the exit of the final member of Sir John Major’s cabinet from the Commons.

This means that it is unlikely anybody who served in the Cabinet before the early 2000s will still be an MP following June 4.

On Friday, Baroness Davidson of Ludin Links, the former Scottish Tory leader, mocked Mr Sunak’s election campaign and asked whether there was a “double agent” inside the Tory party’s headquarters.

She wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “The deluge launch, drowned out by D:Ream. A brewery visit with a teetotal PM, so no chance of a p--- up.

“Now a site visit to something famous for sinking. Is there a double agent in CCHQ, and were they a headline writer in a previous life? Our candidates deserve better.”