The next ‘Portillo Moment’? Who could be at risk

Hannah Camilleri, Communications Officer

Posted on the 25th October 2023

The two large Conservative majorities overturned in last week’s by-elections have led to media speculation that even frontbenchers of the Government in ‘safe seats’ are at risk of their very own ‘Portillo moment’.

The phrase stems from the results of the Enfield Southgate constituency in the 1997 General Election where Michael Portillo, Tory frontbencher and a man tipped as a future leader of the Conservative party, lost his seat to Labour’s Stephen Twigg.

The phrase ‘Portillo moment’ has become synonymous with the idea of frontbench heavyweights receiving shock election results which sees them lose their seat. For example, the shock ousting of Labour frontbencher Ed Balls in 2015 and the former Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson’s swift axing from her seat of East Dunbartonshire in 2019.

Whilst the extensive discussion of who else faces their own potential ‘Portillo moment’ when the next General Election occurs rather removes the ‘unexpected’ element of the whole trope, it will still be a shock to see some of politics biggest names summarily removed from the House.

We have been doing some number crunching and – even on the new boundaries – there are quite a few names who might be at risk if the swings seen in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth are replicated.

Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor of the Exchequer:

Jeremy Hunt, the man who ran for leader of the Conservative party twice, is now our Chancellor of the Exchequer. There have been media reports that he faces a serious challenge in his seat and is considering standing down at the next election. The latter could be in relation to the fact that his majority in his seat of Godalming & Ash is being slowly chipped away by the Liberal Democrats.

His nominal majority of 10,391 sounds like a lot but at 54.5% of the vote with the Liberal Democrats trailing closely behind with 35% of the vote in the 2019 election he’s in hot water. Especially, as the boundaries of Godalming & Ash have changed significantly making this a different kind of fight for the Chancellor. The Liberal Democrats are now the largest party on Waverley Borough Council by some margin and are hot on the heels of the Conservatives in his County Council too.

Grant Shapps, Defence Minister:

Grant Shapps, a minister who has had three different Cabinet positions in just over 12 months could also be at risk. Shapps is, generally, well regarded within his party and has the level of name recognition that could tip him into becoming a frontrunner for whenever the next Conservative leadership race takes place. The opposition – Labour this time – could pose a threat in his seat of Welwyn Hatfield.

His nominal majority sits at only 10,812, a smidge above his colleague Jeremy Hunt’s but with even more risk as Labour gained 31.6% of the vote share in 2019 to his 52.5%. In the most recent council elections, the Conservatives on Welwyn Borough Council lost to no overall control in the borough with both the Liberal Democrats and Labour snatching a number of wards.

Michael Gove, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Minister:

Michael Gove, the Levelling-Up Minister, sits in the usually safe Conservative seat of Surrey Heath could now be at serious risk of losing his seat of Surrey Heath to the Liberal Democrats.

In 2019, the Liberal Democrats were still able to win 25.6% of the vote share in the constituency. Gove has a larger majority than his previously mentioned counterparts at 16,456 votes, however, lost the support of the constituency’s Borough Council in May this year. The Liberal Democrats won the majority with 24 Councillors to the Conservative’s 6, a loss of 12 Councillors for the party.

Penny Mourdant, Leader of the House:

Penny Mourdant, the Leader of the House of Commons and everyone’s favourite sword wielder, is the favourite amongst the four mentioned to stand for party leader and have a legitimate shot of winning the race.

Her constituency, Portsmouth North, has ping-ponged between the Conservatives and Labour since its creation in 1974 and may be the largest seat by geographical size which still earns the reputation of being a ‘bell-weather’ seat. Mourdant successfully took it off Labour in the 2010 election. Her nominal majority sits at 15,774 and she does have a large share of the vote with 61.4%. However, Labour managed to reach almost half that in the 2019 election at 27%. Since 2019 the unitary authority of Portsmouth City Council has been under no overall control with the Liberal Democrats currently leading at 18 Councillors to the Conservatives 8, Labour’s 7, and the Independent group’s 9.

A job for life?

The debate about Portillo Moments at the next election also highlights the absurdities of the current electoral system – where some seats are considered so safe their MPs are felt to have a job for life.

By moving to a fair voting system of proportional representation, voters would have a real say in who represents them in parliament. Under proportional representation, safe seats become a thing of the past, every vote counts and your elected representatives have to work harder to keep their jobs.

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