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40 Tory MPs who are voting with their feet

Westminster exodus: Record number of departures paints embarrassing picture of disillusionment for the government

Political Correspondent

The number of Conservative MPs retiring from Westminster at the next election is likely to set a new record, and the party's number of women MPs also looks set to dwindle, Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's summer campaigns manager, said yesterday.

Spotlighting the 40 Tory backbenchers who have already announced their retirement at the end of the current Parliament, Ms Mowlam said the party was heading for the highest number of exits in a quarter of a century. There were 14 in 1974, 24 in 1979, 34 in 1983; 43 in 1987 and 59 in 1992 - but there is still up to 20 months to go before the next election.

Ms Mowlam said that while "Tory lemmings" were fleeing Parliament, Labour had six times as many women prospective candidates. The candidates to replace the outgoing MPs were invariably men, while the Tory "chicken run", in which ministers and MPs desert their existing seats for safer ones, was also driving women out.

Labour's progress in selecting women has, however, only been achieved at the cost of significant unrest within the party over women-only shortlists. As reported on page 2, a fresh legal challenge has been launched over the controversial quota system that reserves half party's winnable seats for women.

But compared to the 20 retiring Labour MPs and three Liberal Democrats, the string of Tories jumping ship paints an embarrassing picture of disillusionment for the Government, and the scale of the exodus cannot be explained by retirement on age grounds.

Although retiring MPs are not prepared to say so openly, the key factor is Nolan's recommendation that MPs declare the levels of earnings from consultancies, which many Tories want blocked.

Others view with distaste the prospect of life as an Opposition backbencher in the event of a Labour victory, but even if the Conservatives emerge victorious, the realities of working for a further term with a small Commons majority appears not to be appealing.

Some are faced with dramatically changed, or disappearing, constituencies through boundary changes and cannot face, or have already lost out under, the "chicken run". Others do not relish fighting a marginal seat in an election that will see the Tories defending more than 90 seats that would be lost on a swing of 5 per cent.

The multiplicity of minus points is prompting some to seize available opportunities for a new life in business or the City before their options are closed off, while others hope that an appointment to the House of Lords will enable them to continue political life.

Candidates to replace the departees include the Thatcherite former MP Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) and Oliver Letwin, the right-wing architect of the poll tax (West Dorset). The political scales are balanced, however, by the candidacy of the Number 10 Policy Unit members Damien Green (Ashford) and Tim Collins, the former Tory party communication chief (Westmoreland & Lonsdale).