With probably more than a year remaining before John Major goes to the country, the next election will almost certainly see a record number of Tory MPs standing down.
In 1992 (from a larger Conservative Parliamentary Party), 56 MPs retired, as opposed to 43 in 1987 and 34 in 1983. This time as many as 70 Tories are expected not to contest their seats.
Last week David Howell, the former Cabinet minister, announced his decision to step down, provoking some soul-searching among fellow MPs. Sir Julian Critchley (who is also leaving Parliament at the next election) wrote in the London Evening Standard that the retirement of the gentlemanly old guard will leave a party "overtaken by careerists, suspicious of foreigners, determined to end the welfare state".
Within two days Mr Howell had been joined by Robert Hicks, MP for South East Cornwall, who argued that both the Commons and the Tory party had altered and "neither has necessarily changed for the better".
With the Tories well behind in the opinion polls, with many seats affected by boundary changes and several facing a tough battle to return to what is likely to be opposition, it is not surprising that the ranks of those standing down are swollen.
The list of those quitting falls into several categories. The first is those who have served as ministers, many in the Cabinet, and have achieved all they had expected. Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, and Kenneth Baker, the former Conservative Party chairman, fall easily into this category. So do Mr Howell, a former Secretary of State for Energy, Richard Needham, former Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry and Tim Renton, the former Chief Whip. Mr Howell says he has had a "marvellous time" but needs, after 30 years, to "re-pot" himself elsewhere.
One slightly less charitable colleague, observed: "They've all been there and done that. They know that they have gone as far as they are going."
According to Robert Hayward, a psephologist and former MP for Kingswood, the Tory hegemony has meant many MPs became ministers very young. He said: "We are seeing a number of people retiring earlier than they might have done. Because we have been in government for so long, they have achieved what they ordinarily would have taken longer to achieve." In other words, if the two parties had been alternating in government as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, MPs in their fifties would still be aspiring Cabinet material, rather than having served in and been sacked from the highest offices of state.
The prospects for a fired minister can leave much to be desired. Mr Howell, who stayed on after leaving the Cabinet and served as a select committee chairman, is an exception. Most ex-ministers scale down their Parliamentary activities and trawl for directorships.
Meanwhile the status of the backbench MP is not what it once was. One minister observed: "There is a change from 40 years ago when a number of people came into the House with a positive desire to be a backbencher. The volume of work, including the amount of paper that has to be shifted, has increased."
Thus the decision of John Patten, former Secretary of State for Education, to quit at the next election came as no surprise to colleagues. One said: "I have seem him speak in the House only once, I think, since he left office. He always wanted to be a minister and never liked the place for its own sake."
All this means that, with Tony Blair leading the polls by more than 30 points, many MPs face an uphill battle to maintain a less desirable job. The Norwich North seat which Patrick Thompson is relinquishing at the next election falls into this category.
Boundary changes have forced many MPs to confront a different, and often more difficult, local political environment.
Meanwhile, the lure of more money in the private sector has proved too much for some. Steven Norris, the only serving minister to have announced his intention of resigning at the next election, has made no secret of his need for more earning power. This trend may be accelerated by the Nolan recommendations which will force MPs to declare their earnings. A Labour government would mean fewer lucrative directorships for Tory MPs.
What of the charge from Sir Julian Critchley, a frequent critic of past Conservative governments, that the retirements marked the end of the gentleman Tory? The departing MPs include those on both wings of the party, but the left is more heavily represented because it has a greater concentration among the older MPs.
Ministers reject Sir Julian's theory. One said: "I knew Sir Julian Critchley - and he was no gentleman Tory."
Another added more acidly: "Sometimes we wondered whether he was a Tory at all."
If nothing else, the retiring MPs will find no rival outlet for their powers of abuse.Reuse content