Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom to stand down at general election

<span>Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove in 2016, when they both stood for the Conservative party leadership.</span><span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove in 2016, when they both stood for the Conservative party leadership.Photograph: Reuters

Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom have joined the now record-breaking exodus of Conservative MPs from the Commons, with the former saying it was time for a “new generation” to lead the party.

Gove’s announcement in a letter tweeted on Friday evening had been anticipated by some given the strong Liberal Democrat challenge he faces in his Surrey Heath constituency, but adds to the sense of Tories fleeing in the face of a likely general election loss.

Leadsom released her own letter shortly after, writing to Sunak: “After careful reflection, I have decided not to stand as a candidate in the forthcoming election.”

It puts the total number of sitting Tories saying they will not stand again at 78, beating the previous record of 72 from 1997.

An MP since 2005, Gove has been central to Tory fortunes ever since. The levelling up secretary had previously served as education secretary, justice secretary, environment secretary and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

In his letter, Gove wrote that he knew “the toll office can take, as do those closest to me … No one in politics is a conscript. We are volunteers who willingly choose our fate. And the chance to serve is wonderful. But there comes a moment when you know that it is time to leave. That a new generation should lead.

Leadsom reached the final two of the 2016 Conservative leadership contest to replace David Cameron, but withdrew, putting Theresa May in No 10.

Among her government posts have been environment secretary, business secretary and Commons leader. She returned to government as a health minister last year, leading on Sunak’s plan to phase out tobacco sales – which has been dropped with the sudden election.

Rishi Sunak’s sudden announcement of a 4 July election had already prompted a renewed rush of Conservatives saying they would step down. The total had hit 70 by Wednesday evening.

Earlier on Friday, three more MPs said they were going, among them the former cabinet ministers John Redwood and Greg Clark, both of whom represent home counties seats where the Liberal Democrats could beat the Tories.

The Conservatives also symbolically handed back the party whip to the former health secretary Matt Hancock and Bob Stewart – both of whom had already announced they were standing down – just before parliament’s prorogation on Friday.

Also departing is Craig Mackinlay, who returned to the Commons only this week after nearly dying from sepsis and having his hands and feet amputated. The South Thanet MP said he had hoped to phase his return and could not commit to a campaign.

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Sunak’s efforts to breathe life into the two-day-old campaign suffered another hiccup on Friday when a visit to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter brought comparisons to the liner’s sinking in 1912.

“We are just yards away from where the Titanic was built and designed,” a reporter from Belfast Live asked Sunak in a clip widely shared on social media. “Are you captaining a sinking ship going into this election?”

As Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary – among those not standing again – tried to suppress a smirk, Sunak launched into a heavily rehearsed answer about how “our plan is working”.

Adding to the difficulties, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, was chastised by the official statistics watchdog for claiming that taxes were falling. Robert Chote, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, agreed with a Liberal Democrat argument that a cut in national insurance was more than offset by other factors, such as the freezing of tax thresholds.

The Titanic visit in particular is the latest in a series of unwelcome mishaps that have plagued the Conservative campaign, starting with the election being announced by an increasingly sodden Sunak in a rainy Downing Street, his words almost drowned out by Labour’s 1997 anthem Things Can Only Get Better, blasted out by a protester.

On Thursday, his first campaign stop was at a warehouse in Derbyshire, where staff in hi-vis jackets asked him questions. It later emerged that two of the questioners were actually Conservative councillors.

In a subsequent event, at a brewery in south Wales, Sunak’s attempt to make small talk by asking people if they were looking forward to Euro 2024 fell slightly flat after they pointed out that Wales had failed to qualify.

After the Titanic clip emerged, Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, expressed worry. “The deluge launch drowned out by D:Ream,” she wrote on X. “A brewery visit with a teetotal PM, so no chance of a piss-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.”