Page last updated at 10:38 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 11:38 UK

The great Commons clearout

By Gillian Hargreaves
BBC political correspondent

Commons benches
The Commons benches could be filled with new faces

It used to be the case that getting elected to Parliament was a difficult business.

Unless you were one of the chosen few to have caught your party leader's eye and been parachuted into a safe seat, you faced years of slogging around constituencies and being defeated by other hopefuls until Lady Luck - or more likely the changing fortunes of the other political parties - shone your way.

But my, how times are changing.

The pace at which politicians are now declaring an intention to stand down at the next election suggest that - if you have political ambitions and a clean charge sheet - now might be a good time to step forward to your nearest MP's recruiting office.

David Cameron has already urged anyone interested in standing to get in touch with the Conservatives.

Even before the expenses scandal broke, Labour had 42 MPs standing down at the next election - far more than the other parties.

Three more have been added to that total so far by the expenses row.

French revolution

Some 22 Conservatives are heading for the exit, including eight caught up in the Telegraph's revelations, and five Liberal Democrats will head off to a life outside Westminster at the next election, none so far as a direct result of expenses stories.

I joked on air the other evening that I was beginning to feel like a tricoteuse during the French revolution. We political correspondents are metaphorically sitting by the guillotine waiting for the next one to fall.

David Cameron
The exodus of Tory MPs could turn out to be a gift for David Cameron

But that joke is starting to wear painfully thin.

For a few days Julie Kirkbride, the Tory MP for Bromsgrove, looked like she would be the main breadwinner in her family, after her husband Andrew Mackay decided to stand down in Bracknell.

But she and another female MP, Labour's Margaret Moran, have both now decided the stress and scrutiny of their affairs is not worth the candle. All three are part of a growing list.

Several "Tory grandees" are going. Sir Peter Viggers will retire at the next election after his expenses were revealed by the Telegraph. He had claimed £30,000 for gardening, including £500 for manure and £1,645 on a floating duck island.

Douglas Hogg, sharply criticised for receiving money for cleaning the moat around his second home, said on 19 May he too would step down at the next election.

Anthony Steen, and Nicholas and Ann Winterton, are also going after their expenses claims were revealed.

Of course, an MP's misfortune may be a prospective candidate's opportunity.

'Bedblockers'

Conservative MPs are chosen by local constituency parties - but the leadership in London must be hoping that the current scandal creates an opportunity to appoint the younger, more ethnically diverse candidates, long-promised by David Cameron, to safe Tory seats.

MPs TO HAVE STOOD DOWN SINCE EXPENSES SCANDAL BROKE
Ben Chapman (Lab)
Ian McCartney (Lab)*
Margaret Moran (Lab)
Michael Martin (Lab)
John Smith (Lab)*
Christopher Fraser (Con)*
Julie Kirkbride (Con)
Ann Winterton (Con)*
Nicholas Winterton (Con)*
Andrew MacKay (Con)
Peter Viggers (Con)
Anthony Steen (Con)
Douglas Hogg (Con)

*These MPs say they are stepping down for other reasons


It might actually turn out to be a gift for Mr Cameron, a chance to get rid of the older MPs some in his party have unkindly described as "bedblockers".

The exodus of Labour MPs, many of them in marginal seats, has been seen by some as a sign the party knows it is facing defeat.

But the expenses row has been claiming scalps in previously rock solid Labour seats. Labour's Elliott Morley, who some expect to be the next Labour MP to step down, has a majority of 9,000 in Scunthorpe.

The biggest scalp of all, the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, had a 10,000 majority in Glasgow North East, helped by the convention of being unopposed by the Tories and Lib Dems.

His departure will trigger a by-election there, which could prove tough for Labour.

Experience vacuum

The former government minister, Ian McCartney, who has a majority of more than 18,000 in Makerfield, the Parliamentary equivalent of a job for life, will also be standing down at the next Parliament because of health reasons. But the MP's move came days after he announced he had voluntarily repaid £15,000 of expenses in 2008 for refurbishing his second home after the rules were tightened.

Labour MP Ben Chapman has also decided to go as a result of the expenses row. The Wirral South MP's seat is more marginal, with a 3,600 majority.

But it is not just those who have been touched by the expenses scandal. Many old timers and familiar faces will be packing their bags and boxes and waving goodbye to Westminster at the next election.

Labour's Martin Salter, Anne Cryer, Ruth Kelly, and Chris Mullin, Conservative Ann Widdecombe, former Labour minister and now independent Clare Short to name but a few.

The list is long - and their departure will leave a vacuum of experience in the Commons chamber, which will be a very different place after the next general election as a result. We political correspondents may need a crib sheet to recognise all the new faces.



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