Some Conservative lawmakers are plotting to abandon their constituents in order to secure safer seats at the next UK general election in anticipation of heavy losses for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s party.
Tory Members of Parliament have in recent days been informing their local associations and party headquarters whether they intend to stand again at the next election, which is due before January 2025. With an unusually large number of Tory MPs expected to quit, the prospect of swapping seats has become a key talking point, even more so than in recent years, according to MPs and officials familiar with those conversations.
The regular process of boundary adjustments that will come into force at the next election adds another motive, and at times a justification, for some MPs to swap. The changes this time are brutal for some Tories, compounded by the dire state of the polls, meaning that even some relatively safe seats are now under threat.
The scramble by individual MPs to save their jobs has been a controversial feature of British politics for decades, and it becomes especially pronounced when MPs start to think they are looking at the dying days of a government.
The mood among Tory MPs in marginal constituencies this week suggest little sense of optimism that Sunak will be able to turn around the party’s poor poll rating in the next two years. Toward the end of John Major’s premiership in the 1990s, Tony Blair’s Labour opposition labeled the Conservative MPs fighting to secure safer seats as “chickens” and the process became known as the chicken run.
MPs who try to swap seats tend to argue that they do so out of necessity because of boundary changes, the regular alterations made to the borders of constituencies, due to demographic and population changes. But critics see the chicken run as the ultimate panic move by a careerist politician.
With the writing on the wall in opinion polls, they wave goodbye to the people they were elected to represent, and run off to somewhere more politically convenient to save their own skins, so that argument goes. At the 2019 election, Tory minister Mims Davies already ditched her seat of Eastleigh in Hampshire – typically a Liberal Democrat marginal – for affluent Mid Sussex, which has been Conservative since its inception.
The process is cut-throat and full of obfuscation as MPs weigh up their futures and jostle for position, making it one of the more entertaining beltway stories obsessed over by political anoraks. MPs routinely will let their association believe they’re standing again, only to change their mind later on.
The current proposals by the Boundary Commission would see 59 existing parliamentary seats shift by 40% or more, meaning plenty of seats could look very different to how they did in 2019, when the Tories clinched their biggest majority for a generation.
Some of the worst-affected MPs include Gavin Williamson, the former minister who resigned in the first weeks of Rishi Sunak’s government, whose South Staffordshire seat is merging with South Dudley. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s Wyre and Preston North constituency is also in peril.
Rush for Seats
A battle is under way among Tory MPs to become the candidate in the Bishop Auckland seat vacated by Dehenna Davison, the 29-year-old incumbent who has decided to leave politics, according to people familiar with those discussions.
The seat in northeast England is seen as a relatively good prospect for Tories even though polls suggest swathes of working class voters in the north will return to Labour. The Boundary Commission is proposing to disband the neighboring North West Durham seat currently held by another 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 should have a strong Tory voter base. Party figures suggest Greg Clark, whose nearby Tunbridge Wells has been targeted heavily by the Liberal Democrats due to its largely Remain-voting population, is among those in the running. Asked to comment, Clark told Bloomberg he is happy in Tunbridge Wells.
The prime seat of Windsor, home to the Royal Family and with a Tory majority of 20,000, is vacant as its MP Adam Afriyie is quitting politics. Tory MPs suggest Ben Spencer could jump over from Runnymede and Weybridge in Surrey. Spencer did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Raab Under Pressure
Embattled Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who is facing an investigation over bullying allegation which he denies, is also under pressure in next door Esher and Walton. The Liberal Democrats are throwing resources into winning the seat, believing boundary changes there make them more likely to win it. That’s caused Tory MPs to speculate that Raab could jump to Runnymede. A spokesman for Raab denied that he’s considering it.
There are also issues for the Tories in southeast London, where boundary changes could leave Bromley’s Bob Neill and Beckenham’s Bob Stewart with decisions to make about their futures.
One senior Tory joked that the party would have to hire a fleet of helicopters to fly its MPs around the country as they search for new constituencies. But another was less jovial, commenting that with the polls currently where they are, there would be no safe seats left at all at the next election.
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