Election campaign

The perils of attempting a Commons comeback

It’s rare for ex-MPs to return the House of Commons, particularly those who have since gone on to high-profile jobs in other political institutions.

But in 2015 we will see not one but two of their kind hoping to return to Westminster: Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond.

Both are coming from roles where they have had far more power and influence than that wielded by an MP: mayor of London and first minister of Scotland respectively. And both, you suspect, will treat their reacquaintance with the Commons as a means to an end.

For ex-MPs do not return to parliament simply to be MPs again. They go back because they want to be something other than just an MP. They’ve already done their time as backbenchers or shadow ministers. Now they believe a bigger prize is on offer.

For Johnson it is a cabinet post, or even leader of the Conservative party. For Salmond, it’s the chance to dictate the shape of the next coalition from within a greatly-expanded body of SNP MPs.

There’s nothing new about any of this. One very obvious antecedent is the behaviour of Roy Jenkins, who returned to the Commons in 1982 after a spell as president of the European Commission. He didn’t go back just to be an MP. He went back as leader of a brand new party, the SDP, in the hope of “breaking the mould” of British politics and becoming a major force in government.

Michael Portillo is another example. After his famous election defeat in 1997 Portillo would have been forgiven for wanting to take himself off somewhere far away from politics to rehabilitate his reputation. But his ambition to lead the Conservative party proved the greater motivation and within two years he had won a by-election and was back in the Commons as shadow chancellor and deputy Tory leader.

For both Jenkins and Portillo, however, their ultimate aim ended in failure. The SDP did not break the mould; Portillo did not become Tory leader. Both overestimated both their own importance and the size of their own following.

I’m sure there are other examples of ex-MPs returning to the Commons in hope of this or that political prize. There may even be an instance of someone actually achieving it. But I wonder if voters will come to detect more hubris than noble intent in the actions of Johnson and/or Salmond – and take their revenge accordingly.

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