The last few weeks have seen unprecedented scrutiny of our Members of Parliament which has been entirely justified and has resulted in the necessary termination of a number of long Parliamentary careers. In the last two weeks alone we have seen six Conservative MPs all with over 25 years service each announce their retirements.
This is on top of several of the Party's most senior MPs such as Michael Howard, David Curry and Ann Widdecombe already announcing the end of their careers in the Commons at the next election. Indeed, there was speculation in the Sunday Times that we could now see up to 55 Conservative MPs (nearly 30% of the parliamentary party) standing down in the aftermath of the expenses saga. It appears likely that a large percentage of those 55 would be MPs in their 50s and 60s who have served for many years and in many cases with great honour and probity.
Let me make it clear that it is not this article's purpose to support those who have abused the system and the public's trust: where it becomes obvious that an MP's conduct has made their position untenable with their constituents, natural events must be left to take their course and resignations and deselections are inevitable.
However what is concerning is the potential for long-standing MPs who have not been directly implicated in the expenses scandal deciding that now is the time to end their parliamentary careers due to an element of guilt by association. With a General Election only a year away at the most, it appears that one of the only cards left for an increasingly desperate Gordon Brown to play is the argument that the Conservative Party does not have the experience to deal with the economic crisis and other upheavals. The welcome return of Kenneth Clarke to the front bench to some degree counters this line of attack, however the fact remains that only Clarke and William Hague among the current Shadow Cabinet have Cabinet experience.
Of course, with the Party having been out of office for over 12 years it is hardly surprising that relatively few leading players have Government experience and it is worth pointing out that the likes of Francis Maude and Liam Fox do have ministerial experience. In addition, some of the younger Shadow Cabinet members – such as George Osborne, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and, of course, David Cameron himself – have demonstrated their undoubted talents in Opposition. However, all good governments must be a blend of youth and experience, and if as many as 55 Conservative MPs do retire at the next election one has to wonder where the experience will come from.
It should also be emphasised that there is a wealth of talent on the Conservative backbenches which David Cameron has effectively utilised in his policy commissions and will be an invaluable resource once in government – whether it is Peter Lilley and John Redwood on the Right of the Party or John Gummer and Sir George Young on the Left. Furthermore, there are many others like Christopher Chope, Tim Yeo and Michael Ancram who have high level ministerial or local government experience. These and many others from their generation are hard-working parliamentarians and are committed Conservatives. It is vital that the expenses scandal does not wipe out an entire generation of MPs in their 60s who still have plenty to contribute but are swept out on a tide of distaste for all established politicians.
One final argument for retaining as many of this generation of MPs as possible is that if Parliament is to be truly representative of the country at large, it must surely have a fair quota of MPs in their 60s, 70s and, dare I even say it, 80s. With an ageing population, it is surely right that Parliament reflects this demographic trend and sees age as a positive rather than a negative. This needs to be applied not just when considering serving MPs, but we must also ensure that potential candidates who are of a mature age are not ruled out for this reason.
One such ageing Conservative MP is Sir Peter Tapsell who will be approaching his 80th birthday at the time of the next General Election and who remains an active contributor to Parliament. He should continue to have a valued place in the Parliamentary Party, provided he wants to continue. It is exciting that the next Parliament will in all likelihood see a good number of Conservative MPs in their 20s and early 30s and this particular twenty-something certainly has no problem with that. But in these days of age discrimination laws, it is surely healthy to have a fair number of MPs in their 60s and 70s as well to counter-balance this.
My principle concern is that if the 55 retirements materialise, a whole host of experience will be lost and in some cases unnecessarily. While it is essential that those MPs who have abused their office are brought to book, I sincerely hope that it will not be a case of throwing the greybeards out with the bathwater.