Departing MPs head for the real world

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The worlds of banking, public affairs consultancy and the law are, presumably, looking forward to a boost this year as more than 150 MPs head out of the House of Commons and back into the real world.

With almost 60 Conservative members retiring, and as many again likely to lose their seats, the exodus is likely to take on a distinctly blue hue. Just 26 Labour MPs are retiring, along with six Liberal Democrats and one Ulster Unionist.

In six months time, a quarter of the seats in the Commons will be filled by newcomers. While some of their previous incumbents will continue to haunt the precincts of Westminster, unable to tear themselves away, others will fade quietly into the background. A few, but probably only a few, will emerge into public life in another field.

Most of those leaving will say they are going because of advancing age or ill-health, but one or two have already found lucrative bolt-holes. The former transport minister Steven Norris will earn pounds 150,000 per year as director of the Road Haulage Association. He has already announced that he is leaving politics "for very straightforward financial reasons".

But what will become of those MPs who will fight to the last to keep their seats? Is there life for them after Westminster?

George Walden, former education minister and Conservative MP for Buckingham, believes there is. He will retire at the general election, aged 55, but is not worried that he will find it difficult to leave. He is looking forward to reviving an interest in Russia and China that he developed in a former life as a diplomat. As a former chair of the Booker prize and as co-author with his wife of a book on art history, he has plenty of outside interests.

"I think the routine of the Commons is really quite nice for people to sort of moulder into, and that is a very good reason for moving on. It is full of really rather good people operating a defunct system," he says.

Others find the break with politics harder to make. Sir Gerrard Neale, lost his North Cornwall seat in 1992 and went back to his law practice. However, he did not move far - his office is across the road from the Commons and his firm represents a number of MPs.

As the occupant of a marginal seat he was always philosophical about losing it during the 13 years he spent in Westminster. "I think mentally I was prepared for it pretty well, as was my wife. But it's very difficult to prepare yourself emotionally because of the commitment which is there right up to the last day. But people are made redundant in all sorts of walks of life where they are equally committed," he says.

Michael Knowles, who had a majority of 500 in Nottingham East before the 1992 election, also knew he was likely to lose. But the world of sales, in which he worked before, had moved on, so he drew on his political experience and set up his own public affairs company.

"Being an MP was an episode in a life in politics. Would I rather be there? Of course I would. But it can never be taken away from you. It's the biggest single honour anyone can have," he says.

Small wonder, then, that so many MPs are reluctant to leave. Ten sitting MPs, seven Conservative, two Labour and one Tory defector, Alan Howarth, are still looking for new seats either because they have not been reselected or because their seats are disappearing in boundary changes.

There are also many who itch to return to the fold. Among the new Conservative intake next spring will be three senior figures who lost their seats in 1992. Michael Fallon, former education minister, will return as member for Sevenoaks in Kent, John Maples, former deputy chairman, will take up Mr Howarth's Stratford-on-Avon seat and Francis Maude, former trade, Foreign Office and Treasury minister, will become the member for Horsham in Sussex.