LEADING ARTICLE: No sympathy for Tory deserters

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The Independent Online
John Major's revival in the past two weeks suggests the Tory ship may not be about to sink after all. But a lot of the rats are not hanging around to find out. More than 50 Conservative MPs have announced that they will not be fighting the next election. And more could join them before polling day arrives.

Of course, every MP has his or her own reasons for retiring. Some feel they are too old. Others may genuinely want to spend more time with their families. Many younger MPs may want to earn more money working in business.

However, this diversity of individual reasons for MPs wanting out cannot distract from the discontent and disillusion that departing MPs feel as they tramp the corridors of powerlessness so familiar to backbenchers. Emerging from their babble is a commentary not just upon the dire state of the Tory party but also the malaise in our political system.

Underlying the tales of Westminster weariness and blighted ambition is a widespread fear of opposition: no chance of red boxes, no prospect of promotion, no influence upon ministers. Ambitious middle-aged junior ministers are suddenly realising that their career trajectory will be curtailed unless they find another job quickly. Boundary changes and the Tories' flagging performance in the polls means that some of these MPs will be looking for new jobs anyway.

In one sense, the exodus is an unremarkable admission that politics is becoming ever more a career. And, like other careers, people need to be able to switch around. Politics needs to be refreshed by people moving in and out of it, bringing back to it ideas and skills learnt in the outside world of real life. Yet in another sense, the exodus - and the desperation which accompanies it - must be very bad news for the Conservatives. It looks as though many in their ranks believe they are already defeated. The voters would respect and trust the younger ones far more if they stood and fought rather than running at the first hint of defeat.

More significant is the loss of older MPs, who can recall a time when Tory politics was about community, church and country, without being divisive, shrill and xenophobic. They are likely to be replaced by brasher, younger types, drawn from the City, advertising and estate agencies, brought up politically with Margaret Thatcher and with no memory beyond her. That will tilt the balance of the party further away from the centre-left traditions which it needs to keep hold of if it is to command the centre ground of politics.

Periods in opposition are as vital to democratic politics as periods in power. Time spent outside government should allow intellectual renewal, the discovery of new ideas and political visions. No party needs this more than the Tory party as it drifts listlessly from one short-term crisis to another, with the odd fleeting victory in between.

Labour, by contrast, is finally reaping the rewards of a painfully slow, partial and still far from complete political renewal. The Tories should learn from that and be ready to make opposition a more fruitful experience. Conservatives should not be leaving politics, they should be readying themselves to engage in it in the most energetic way: arguing, debating, proposing; not running for cover in the City.