Gove and Leadsom join pre-election exodus of Tory MPs that now outstrips 1997

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The number of Tory MPs quitting parliament has overtaken the exodus that preceded Labour’s 1997 landslide, with cabinet minister Michael Gove and former leadership contender Dame Andrea Leadsom the latest to announce their departures.

On a difficult second day of campaigning for the UK prime minister, the running count of Conservatives declaring they will not stand again for Westminster reached 78 nearly a quarter of all serving Tory MPs.

Levelling up secretary Gove announced on Friday evening that he would not be standing again in his Surrey Heath seat, where he had a majority of over 18,000 at the 2019 election.

He was followed a few hours later by Leadsom, who stood to replace David Cameron as Tory leader and prime minister after the Brexit referendum in 2016 — losing out to Theresa May. Her majority in South Northamptonshire is 27,761.

In 1997, ahead of Sir Tony Blair achieving a 179-seat majority for Labour, 72 Tory MPs stood down.

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Sunak also faced internal criticism of his campaign launch, which involved surprising the party with his rainswept announcement of the July 4 poll date and holding the vote before showpiece policies on migration and a smoking ban have been enacted or legislated.

After Sunak travelled to the shipyards in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter on Friday, former Scottish Tory leader Baroness Ruth Davidson joked: “Now a site visit to something famous for sinking. Is there a double agent in CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters], and were they a headline writer in a previous life?”

Rishi Sunak visiting Belfast’s docklands
Rishi Sunak visiting Belfast’s docklands © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Sunak was also told by a nursery owner at a campaign event in Staffordshire that government funding for early-years education could not cover costs. Jennifer Hughes said after her conversation with the prime minister she “would be inclined to vote Labour”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also had to contend with internal tensions, with his party announcing it would expel former leader Jeremy Corbyn minutes after the veteran socialist said he would run as an independent candidate in his London seat of Islington North.

In 2019, Corbyn led the party into its most catastrophic general election defeat in nearly a century with the loss of 60 MPs.

Starmer has largely marginalised Labour’s most leftwing MPs since he became leader in 2020, as part of his attempt to move the party to the centre ground of British politics.

As the Tories seek to claw back a 21-point poll deficit with Labour, Theresa May, a former prime minister and one of the departing MPs, urged her party not to accept defeat.

“I spent 13 years in opposition — you do not want to do that,” May said, addressing Tory colleagues in her valedictory speech in parliament. “Go out there and fight to make sure a Conservative government is re-elected.”

The party has yet to complete the selection process for around 150 seats, according to officials. 

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CCHQ emailed prospective candidates on Thursday seeking interest for around 100 seats with a 48-hour deadline. Another batch of seats would be advertised on Saturday with the party eager to complete the process quickly, the officials added.

In the wake of the Gove announcement, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson Sarah Olney MP said Conservative politicians were fleeing the blue wall in their droves.

“The drumbeat of Conservative MPs stepping down has been getting louder as the days go by — now it’s deafening. 

The Tory MPs announcing their departure on Friday included former cabinet ministers John Redwood and Greg Clark. Overall, 121 MPs from all parties have said they will not stand again.

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