Finn McRedmond: Good people are leaving British politics
There is more to the exodus than just the vitriol being directed at representatives
The Tory party will shed grandees like Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington, pictured with Tánaiste Simon Coveney last May. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Deputy leader Tom Watson announcing his decision to stand down has signified a worrying development for the moderate wing of the UK Labour party. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
British politics is witnessing a spate of high-profile resignations, including some of Parliament’s most distinguished members. The Tory party will shed grandees like Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames – Churchill’s grandson, former Chancellor Philip Hammond, and Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington. Across the aisle, Labour moderates are deserting the party, including their standard bearer Tom Watson.
There is nothing surprising about veteran politicians using an election to retire from the frontline. The number of resignations is not itself extraordinary – 73 MPs have so far announced that they are standing down, against 149 in 2010. Even the amount of women resigning isn’t disproportional to the gender makeup of the House of Commons.
But things are different this time round. Many of the 19 women resigning, as the New Statesman notes, are young; many stood a fighting chance of retaining their seat. And many cited the increased levels of threats and abuse as the reason for their departure.
Heidi Allen, a once Conservative MP who had recently defected to the Liberal Democrats, said she couldn’t continue to work under “the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace.” Nicky Morgan, the culture secretary, was another among the high-profile resignation who noted that the effect of the abuse and vitriol on her and her family contributed to her decision.
There are obvious parallels with the situation back in Ireland. Data collected by RTÉ found that 52 per cent of TDs surveyed had received death threats, with 37 per cent adding that their family members had also been subject to abuse. No one has forgotten Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny’s car being burnt out in October. Other TDs spoke about threats of arson, having their tires slashed, and being confronted with a shot gun while out canvassing.
Whether the level of vitriol directed at politicians, on both sides of the Irish sea, is reaching an unprecedented scale is hard to determine. No doubt social media has heralded a new wave of anonymous abuse that cannot be good for the fabric of either country’s political life. And in the UK, Brexit has become such a polarising force that the abuse is certainly taking on a new colour.
But the toxic and threatening political atmosphere – crucial to remedy though it is – cannot explain away all the resignations from the House of Commons.
The traditional parties are not what they once were, as Brexit devours the traditional platforms on which they once stood. The Tories, who under David Cameron sought to dominate the centre ground, now parrot the rhetoric of Nigel Farage in a bid to avoid electoral wipeout at the hands of Leave voters in early December.
That Boris Johnson expended everything in his political arsenal to keep the threat of no-deal Brexit alive and well troubled moderate Conservatives – such that 21 MPs defied him on the question, only to be mercilessly kicked out of the party mere hours later. The party under Boris Johnson is not the broad(ish) church it once was, with space for pro-Europe MPs and eurosceptics alike.
It comes as little surprise, then, that a large swathe of those MPs who joined the party under the pretences of David Cameron’s one-nation conservatism – Amber Rudd, Heidi Allen, or Anna Soubry, for example – have now either defected, resigned, or both.
Under the thumb
Meanwhile, Labour is under the thumb of Corbyn and McDonnell who openly repudiate the legacy of Blair, Brown and Miliband. Tom Watson, the deputy leader and a rare centrist voice on the front bench, announcing his decision to stand down has signified a worrying development for the moderate wing of the party.
It is not only a question of the ideological polarisation Brexit has catalysed but also the practical implications of a parliament trying to wrangle with such a seismic constitutional and existential question. There is little space for much else now thanks to the primacy of Brexit, both in the United Kingdom’s national conversation but also in the day-to-day functioning of the Commons. The vital Domestic Abuse bill, for example, has been sidelined again. MPs who joined the ranks in parliament to improve the NHS, or seek better provisions for women who suffer from domestic violence, or indeed have concerns over Britain’s geopolitical strategy beyond the European Union, have little left to do in a parliament paralysed and preoccupied with Brexit.
As MPs are struggling with vitriol, and threats to themselves and their families; and as British politics is being remade along unprecedented lines – both by a preoccupation with Brexit, and the leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell – it is no wonder Britain is losing valuable politicians from the front line. What would possibly compel them to stay?