OPINION - Dominic Raab avoids his ‘Portillo moment’ – by standing down as MP

 (Dominic Raab)
(Dominic Raab)

If I could go back in time to one moment in history, it would be to 20 July 1969 at 21:17 BST, when Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon. I mean, just look at Walter Cronkite’s face. But given a second whirl in the time machine, I’d opt for 3:10am on 2 May 1997, when Michael Portillo lost his seemingly unlosable Enfield Southgate seat.

This does not stem from any personal animus against Portillo, who has since become somewhat of a national treasure and who in the small hours of election night delivered a really rather composed and gracious speech, unlike, erm, some other defeated candidates. I simply would have liked to know what a Portillo moment felt like. Ed Balls’ seat in 2015 was far too marginal to qualify.

There’s also a tremendous and I hope not entirely apocryphal Kessler family angle to Portillo’s defeat. It was late on polling day and neither my Tory-supporting grandpa nor Labour-supporting grandma, who lived in Enfield, had voted. Given that their ballots would cancel the other out, they both agreed not to vote. Until my grandma discovered the house was empty, my grandpa had in fact broken the pact, and she raced off to vote herself.

This is all by way of saying that there will be no ‘Raab moment’ in 2024, as the former deputy prime minister has announced he will not run for parliament. Now, Raab only held his Esher and Walton seat in 2019 by less than 3,000 votes (down from 23,000 in 2017), and his strongly Remain-voting constituency was a pretty safe Liberal Democrat pick-up. So instead, it is the sheer quantity of Tory MPs standing down – Raab is the 37th with more to come – that ought to concern Rishi Sunak.

It is not uncommon for MPs to decide to jump rather than suffer the indignity of defeat in a local authority leisure centre. (Though, fun fact, candidates are told their vote tallies in private just before the public announcement by the returning officer.)

Still, this implies a couple of things. First, that Conservative MPs believe the polls. And second, that Sunak’s job may if anything grow harder as the election approaches. That is because the parliamentary Conservative Party – hardly a paragon of unity up to this point – will only grow more unmanageable if it is populated by MPs who are either resigning or resigned to their fate.

For context, there are a dozen Labour MPs standing down at the next election. But their average age (69) is vastly higher than the Tories (54), with departing members largely comprised of stalwarts such as Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman. Raab is only 49, Chloe Smith 41 and Dehenna Davison 29.

To this I’d add one final data point. An Ipsos poll for today’s Standard finds that nearly two-thirds of Britons think Labour will form the next government. This is not the same as voter intention, but asking people what they think will happen is often a useful predictor of the political future.

In sum, the British people have been deprived of their ‘Raab moment’ in 2024. But on the positive side, he will have more time to spend at home reading the Good Friday Agreement.

In the comment pages, Matthew d’Ancona says the latest Suella Braverman saga shows us just how weak Sunak is. Anna van Praagh warns Oxford students are playing a dangerous game with free speechWhile Simon English thinks it’s time for some honesty about where government debt is heading.

And finally, from mortadella rolls to plump egg sandos, London has a sandwich culture to rival any in the world. Here are 12 to try for National Sandwich Week. Which is a real thing.

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