Chloe Smith is to stand down from the Commons at the next general election. The recent Work and Pensions Secretary is 40 years old. She could reasonably have expected, if she can hold her Norwich North seat next time round, to serve in the Commons for another 25 years. Or to come back later there, or elsewhere, in the event of losing it.
“Most of the rest will get in quick, scramble to the top, and get out quicker,” I wrote on this site when about to leave Parliament myself in 2010. “The Commons’ institutional memory will weaken. With a number of exceptions, MPs will become cowed and toiling drudges.”
My predictions were wrong in some respects. “Fringe eccentrics and exhibitionists will provide the necessary colour, coming and going like celebrity TV contestants – briefly exalted and just as swiftly toppled,” I wrote. That hasn’t happened; not yet, anyway.
But my core case is being proved right. The drop-out rate from Parliament has been speeding up for some time, and seems to be doing so especially among women MPs – and former Ministers. Why? Fewer berths as Select Committee chairs for the latter, since many of those posts are elected cross-party?
More restrictions on outside earnings? More pressure on families? Threats, abuse, stalkers – and the role of social media? What effects have the terrible murders of Jo Cox and David Amess had?
All will have had their part to play, but at the heart of the matter are rising consumer expectations of MPs – no bad thing in itself. Nonetheless, being an MP today, especially in a marginal seat, risks a form of career burnout. No wonder Smith is going at a relatively young age.
There will be more to come very soon. Boundaries are changing and MPs are being asked to make their intentions clear. Smith will have had the marginality of her seat in mind.
It’s a pity. Ex-Ministers have much to offer the Commons. “We tried that, and it didn’t work,” they can tell the Government front bench, as it presents its legislation and proposals. Or, better: “we tried that, it didn’t work – but here’s how it might have done and could do now.”
So have backbenchers like Will Wragg – who is also leaving. He is a courageous voice, and will be missed. The next generation of Conservative MPs may be no less brave and gifted. But there’s one thing they can’t provide: institutional memory.