It is over. My near 40 years as a Member of Parliament came to an end at 5pm on Monday 12 April when, by Royal Proclamation, the Parliament elected in May 2005 was dissolved. There are now no MPs and when the new Parliament is elected on 6 May I shall not be part of it.
It has been a strange experience, withdrawing from a place that has not only occupied, but has effectively been, my life for more than half my years. I made my last speech in the Budget Debate on 24 March and asked my last Question on the day Parliament was prorogued, 8 April. There has been a series of farewells. Colleagues, constituents and even the media have been generous, but it has all been mentally exhausting and emotionally draining.
As I write this, I have just a week to clear my parliamentary office, after which the doors will be locked, the phones switched off and I will go back to my former constituency to help my successor as Conservative candidate. Fortunately, we get on extremely well. I am pleased too that he is having meetings. So few candidates do these days.
Yet no-one is voting for Mr Brown, Mr Cameron or Mr Clegg apart from those who live in their respective constituencies – this is not a presidential election, important as the party leaders are. This is the opportunity for each constituency in the UK to return a representative and so I shall be pounding the beat in South Staffordshire and making the odd foray into other seats which we need to win if we are to form a government.
Every leader is understandably branding this as the most important election for a generation. As I write, the campaign has barely begun and by the time you read these words, polling day will be only a day or two away. By then, we will have been deluged with opinion polls and all of us will be somewhat punch drunk from non-stop election news morning, noon and night.
My conversations in the constituency and elsewhere lead me to believe that a very large number of voters have already made up their minds. They want change. Unless something wholly unexpected happens – like totally disastrous performances in the three televised debates – I believe Mr Cameron is heading for Number 10.
By the first week in May, as Diplomat comes through your door, the campaign will have taken a number of unexpected twists and turns. There will have been personal stories about prominent candidates. Leading figures in each of the main parties will have made headline-grabbing speeches and at least half a dozen candidates will have made gaffes – although that won’t matter very much unless the gaffe has been made by, or associated with, a party leader. Party leaders these days remember the gaffes of 1992 and have ‘Sheffield Rally’ engraved on their hearts, so I do not expect any of them will have done anything too outrageous or ill-judged.
But enough of speculation. Let me just reflect on one or two things we already know in mid-April. Normally, Parliament meets within a week of the General Election. Had things followed the normal pattern, Parliament would have been meeting on the 11 or 12 May to elect the Speaker and the State Opening would have been on 18 or 19 May. As it is, Parliament will not meet until the 18 May for the Election of the Speaker and the State Opening will follow a week later. There will be no week-long Whitsun Recess at the end of May, merely a bank holiday break. Many people have suggested that this timing indicates that those ‘in the know’ have been persuaded by the polls that we are likely to have a hung Parliament and that we may need more time for a government to be formed.
While it is undeniably true that the 18 May would prove a very helpful first meeting date if the election does indeed result in a hung Parliament, I don’t think that those ‘in the know’, whoever they are, made the decision for that reason at all. They were far more concerned about the large number of new MPs there will inevitably be, whatever the result of the election, and the need for them to receive rather more briefing and preparation than is normally the case at the beginning of a new Parliament. And those who decide such things are going to have the most extraordinarily difficult task in the allocation of rooms for all the new Members.
I will be able to reflect on all this in a little more detail in my next piece, which I shall be writing within days of the General Election. All that will feel very odd too. But not quite as odd as these last few days, although I had a very strange experience too at the General Election in 2005, when my Liberal Democrat opponent tragically died a few days before Polling Day. The poll for my South Staffordshire seat was postponed by seven weeks – so this will in fact be the second State Opening I have missed in the last 40 years.