With a large number of former Conservative ministers now languishing on the backbenches, it will take a high degree of political nous for them to return to power.
On 13 July 2016, Theresa May, the famously cautious technocrat and the ‘continuity candidate’ in the Conservative Party leadership election, conducted one of the most brutal cabinet reshuffles in recent history. She sacked six members of her predecessor’s cabinet, with big beasts such as Chancellor George Osborne, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and Education Secretary Nicky Morgan falling victim to her purge, ending a month of high-end drama in British politics.
Those six individuals, along with the mass of junior ministers who either resigned or were forced out three months ago, are now lurking on the back benches. Their actions since leaving government have varied greatly – Michael Gove, one of Mrs May’s greatest adversaries in government, has appeared supportive, at least publicly, of the new prime minister, backing her plan for more grammar schools – contrastingly, Mr Gove’s predecessor as Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has opposed May’s intended education reforms, as well as her handling of Brexit.
Mrs Morgan and Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP for Broxtowe, appear to be the leaders of a new “Awkward Squad”, largely composed of Europhiles and Cameroons. The former members, mostly hard-line Eurosceptics and Thatcherites, are largely satisfied with May’s conduct since her appointment as Prime Minister.
So with dozens of Conservative MPs having returned to the backbenches, voluntarily or otherwise, what will their next move be?
Some, most notably George Osborne, are not giving up on their ambitions just yet. An interesting article recently featured on ConservativeHome noted that, if Mr Osborne were to become Conservative Party leader after a general election loss to Labour in 2025, he could become prime minister in 2030 aged 59 – the same age Mrs May was when she took office this year.
Others have different plans. As stated above, Mrs Morgan is currently challenging the government in certain areas and seems to be enjoying her newfound backbench freedom. However, what might restrict her and a fellow “awkward squad” member is that, unlike their predecessors, they do not speak for the Tory grassroots. With the area covering her constituency having voted Leave in June, Mrs Morgan would be wise to avoid irritating the Loughborough Conservative Association – repeatedly challenging the decisions of the prime minister can have fatal consequences for one’s political career, as Sir George Gardiner found out the hard way.
Although there are plenty of examples of current backbench MPs who have recently fallen from grace, it is worth mentioning our current prime minister as a prime example of how fallen politicians can successfully regain power. Having enjoyed a meteoric political rise in the dying years of the last millennium, Theresa May held the post of Shadow Education & Employment Secretary as Britain entered the 21st Century – a good achievement for somebody who’d only been in Parliament since 1997. Yet when David Cameron became Conservative Party leader in 2005, Theresa May was appointed Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, shadowing a post regarded as a political backwater, where the likes of Robin Cook and Geoffrey Howe had been banished in the years beforehand.
However, far from sitting around feeling sorry for herself, she threw herself into her work, founding ‘Women2Win’ in 2005 and thus ensuring that a high proportion of the Conservative MPs elected in 2010 were female. Eventually, in 2009, she managed to secure the post of Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary – an important, though emotionally-charged, role. Then, in 2010, she became Home Secretary, serving for six years, before entering the Conservative Party leadership election in the aftermath of David Cameron’s resignation – the rest, as we know, is history.
The example of Mrs May is a powerful one – not since the ‘Thatcher the milk-snatcher’ affair of 1970 has a politician become prime minister after suffering such a setback. Yet a template has now been created for those who wish to return to high office, based on the actions of Mrs May during Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party – serve the leader loyally whatever your true feelings towards them are, stay out any political scandal that may crop up and, most importantly, prove yourself to be a grafter.
With a government majority of 12, these backbenchers hold a lot of power, so the way in which they act will have an immense impact on the nation. They have routes back into power –one can imagine Michael Gove soon returning to government, in a similar way to how Mrs May brought Liam Fox, the new International Trade Secretary, and David Davis, the new Brexit Secretary, in from the cold, though the futures of Mr Osborne and Mrs Morgan don’t appear to be as bright. With a political climate as fluid as post-Brexit Britain, the future is unpredictable, but any politician who wishes to stage a comeback will have to learn from history – whether or not they will do so remains to be seen.