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19 July 2023

Inside the assassination bureau

The 1922 Committee is adept at removing prime ministers. How long before its head prefect pays Rishi Sunak a visit?

By Tanya Gold

The Conservative Private Members Committee, informally known as the 1922 Committee (or the ’22, as they call it), is the Tory confessional, its trade union and common room. If that makes it sound chaotic (and it sometimes is) it is also the assassination bureau that felled Margaret Thatcher, and, more recently, three prime ministers in four years – their emotions in defeat ranging from compliance to delirium. On 24 May 2019 the ’22’s chair, Graham Brady MP, visited Theresa May to discuss a date for her departure; she resigned that day. On 6 July 2022 Boris Johnson told Brady he would fight on, even if more than 30 ­ministers had quit. The following morning he telephoned to say he would go. There was no fight when Brady went to see Liz Truss on 20 October 2022: she left the same day.

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The current Conservative collapse is happening largely off-stage, but this is also the party’s End of Days. As if she knew it, May danced the Charleston, the swing of decline, at the ’22’s centenary party in February this year. She has a sense of humour.

The Tories have a taste for theatre and the ’22 is the seat of their internal democracy, one of the backbenchers’ favourite playhouses. Its weekly meeting is held on Wednesday at 5pm in the neo-gothic horror of Committee Room 14 in the Houses of Parliament. The room is vast and high, walled in Augustus Pugin’s poisonous green paper. The carpet is a blinding collection of shapes; the seats of the executive look like a judge’s bench. Paintings of lost Tories line the walls, hung so high you cannot see their faces or read their names.

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[See also: The making of Prince William]

Backbenchers long to be on the ’22 executive: if you are not in government, it is an ­alternative power base. Two of its former executive committee members – Charles Walker and Bernard Jenkin – sat on the Privileges Committee, whose report ­ended Boris Johnson’s political career in June. I knew Johnson was finished when Jenkin questioned him with gentle sympathy, as a Soprano might speak to a man he is about to kill.

The ’22 can be turgid for months, even years. But people talk about Committee Room 14 during a leadership crisis as they might about seeing Bruce Springsteen, or a riot. It’s the sum total of the Tory soul at a point in time: ecstatic, sullen, enraged.

“Woke at 4am this morning in a panic that I wouldn’t get anyone to sponsor me for the ’22 chair,” Alan Clark told his diary in 1997. He failed to get the chair: he was drunk at the despatch box in 1983, published his first volume of diaries in 1993 and might have broken the confessional seal. But he was voted on to the executive and was thrilled: “[I] felt ­immediately an elevation of status”.

The ’22 was founded in 1923 by new MPs elected the previous year. The barrister Gervais Rentoul, the MP for Lowestoft, had noticed his new colleagues’ “ineffectiveness and bewilderment”. Another bemoaned “the complete insignificance of an inexperienced rank and file member lost in the maze of ­parliamentary procedure”.

The ’22 slowly grew in influence, particularly during the coalition government of the war years, when it opposed socialist pressure: Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin both addressed the ’22. It began to overturn policy and force the resignation of cabinet ministers.

The foreign secretary Lord Carrington resigned after a ’22 meeting during the Falklands War: “The party regard it as all being my fault,” he said. The ’22 exiled Leon Brittan, the trade and industry secretary, after the Westland Affair. (“Carrington could afford to leave,” says a Tory friend. “He had a farm. Dominic Raab doesn’t, so he stays [until the election].)”

By 1975 Conservative Party leadership elections were formally run by the ’22, though William Hague gave party members the final say. It is open to all backbenchers when Tories govern – ministers can attend but not vote – and to all MPs when in opposition, except the leader. You cannot have two suns.

Since 2010 the Capo di Tutti Capi, or Head Prefect, or Chief Psychiatrist, or Nanny, has been Graham Brady, the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, though he recused himself in 2019 when he considered standing for the party leadership. (He changed his mind, and Johnson won.) Brady entered parliament in 1997 and resigned as a shadow minister for Europe over David Cameron’s opposition to grammar schools. (Brady was a grammar school boy.) His independence was soothing to MPs. The ’22 has never elected a former cabinet minister as chair.

I meet Brady in his office in Portcullis House. It overlooks Parliament Square: from its fourth-floor windows Westminster is spread out like a board game. Brady meets the idealised criteria set down by the former chair Edward du Cann (1972-84): “A long nose to sniff out trouble, the over-sized ears of a ready listener, a firm hand to deal with the problematical, and a boot to apply to the recalcitrant.”

Brady’s speech is slow – from self-confidence, not shyness – and he smiles a lot. He speaks quietly and deliberately in the passive tense, which strips his narratives of drama, placing a veil over the emotional violence Tories sometimes inflict on one another. It was he who told May, Truss and Johnson they would have to go. He is the confessor to warring factions, not journalists, and, after meeting him, I think he is the closest to a non-disclosure agreement I have met in human form.

Brady thought it was “a very odd suggestion” that he stand for chair in 2010: he was only 43. Now, he calls himself “an open channel of communication between back-bench colleagues and the party leader and ministers in government”. The chair will “tell the prime minister of the day what the prime minister needs to be told”, but “in a confidential, discreet manner that wouldn’t always be splashed all over the newspapers at the same time”. Brady calls the ’22 “a self-help group”: not the Tory party at prayer, but the Tory party in psychoanalysis.

The ’22 is happy with him. In 1990, when Cranley Onslow gave the result of Margaret Thatcher’s first-round leadership ballot to the press first – she had failed to win the majority she needed by four votes and resigned before the second ballot – Alan Clark called it “a monstrous error… for which he will pay at the next election”, and he did: Marcus Fox replaced him as chair in 1992. The ’22 is a tidal creature. It will tolerate anything, until it doesn’t.

The wider 1922 Committee leaks like privatised infrastructure: in June the American pollster Frank Luntz told Tory MPs that anyone with a majority of less than 15,000 might lose their seat (“this is what CCHQ is not telling you”) and that “Trumpian” Boris Johnson is “behaving horribly” and “needs to go away”. There was an atmosphere of “grim gallows humour” and it was all leaked to the Sun.

[See also: Why the Conservative Party is broken]

“Leaks,” Brady tells me softly, “are not helpful.” That is true enough. In March he was caught in a sting by the campaign group Led by Donkeys: Brady offered himself for £60,000 a year to a fake Korean business. “The really gritty discussions happen in the executive, which almost never leaks,” he says. “Nearly all of what we do, we do behind closed doors.”

He won’t tell me where he keeps the letters MPs send to express no confidence in their leaders: 15 per cent of the parliamentary party is the trigger for a confidence vote. He smiles slightly, showing his teeth – Brady has a drawer full of smiles – and says, “Securely.” I ask him about the letters that expressed no confidence in Boris Johnson. “Great detail in some,” he says. “Others very much to the point. There are certain people who submitted and withdrew and submitted again.”

I fantasise about raging screeds in purple ink. Some of the published letters of resignation from government were so wacky that MPs’ staffers said they had nothing to do with them out of ­professional pride.

It’s almost unfair that, though Brady’s job is to find peace, he is more famous for warfare. In May 2019, after the Tories lost 1,330 seats in the local elections, Brady visited May to tell her the ’22 executive had voted on a rule change that would allow a second no-confidence vote within a year (she had won a no-confidence vote in December 2018). “My instructions were to go and see the prime minister and to discuss a date for her leaving Downing Street,” he says. “And that I should only count the votes in the eventuality that she refused.” She did not refuse.

Last year, on 6 June – a date that surely hurt Johnson – Brady announced that 54 letters of no-confidence had been submitted: the threshold of 15 per cent. Johnson won that vote, but lost by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton the same month. Then the deputy chief whip Chris Pincher resigned over sexual assault allegations, and Johnson knew of past complaints. When Brady met Johnson on the evening of 6 July, “it was very clear that he intended to fight. Then I had a phone call early the next morning where he indicated that he had reconsidered.” Johnson announced his resignation that day.

The Brady bunch: the result of the Boris Johnson confidence vote is announced, 6 June 2022. Photo by Stefan Rousseau / PA Images

Then Liz Truss. At the end of her brief leadership, there was “a rather chaotic vote on an opposition day motion in the House of Commons. We had the chief whip [Wendy Morton] resigning and we had a lot of very volatile colleagues in the division lobby.” The following day, Brady was about to telephone Truss when he got a message: she wanted to see him. They met with her chief of staff, Mark Fullbrook. “She asked: ‘It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, it is pretty bad.’ ‘Do you think it’s retrievable?’ ‘No, I don’t think it is.’ She replied that she didn’t either.”

What is it like having to tell them? “They are tough conversations, with people who have worked and campaigned for many years to get to a position where they hope to achieve what they believe is right for the country. They’ve invested a huge amount. It is a difficult conversation: ‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to carry on,’ for whatever reason.”

I cannot tell if wielding this power makes Brady happy: he seems to always be happy. He says that when the Johnson premiership began, “there was a photographer outside Downing Street who took a picture of a folder under the PM’s arm”. Brady continues that the memo on display effectively said, “On no account should you ever spend time alone with Graham Brady.” It made Johnson sound like an infant, and Brady allows himself a giggle. His majority in Altrincham and Sale West is 6,139 and he will leave parliament at the next election. It has, he says, been “fascinating”.

Brady sends me to meet William Cash, MP for Stone, to tell the story of the ’22’s greatest victory, won against David Cameron in 2010, when he tried to give government ministers the power to vote for the ’22 executive. The ’22 bullied John Major when he had a small majority, and Cameron was not prepared to suffer this under coalition.

Brady says that the then chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party begged him to resist Cameron’s proposed changes: “For heaven’s sake, Graham, don’t let them do it! They did this to the Parliamentary Labour Party years ago and it’s never worked as well since!” That is: Labour MPs cannot remove leaders imposed by the membership. Instead the party tears itself apart.

Cash, the godfather of Euroscepticism, is spare and ancient, and inhabits a sort of plush bunker in the bones of parliament. He is crabby and emotional by turns. He asks brusquely for my credentials and tells me his father was killed in Normandy in 1944: “He got the military cross. He was only 25.”

“Woe betide a minister who falls out with the ’22 when it matters,” Cash says. It is “not in any sense a growling watchdog, but if it sees things going bad it has this extraordinary power: to be able to precipitate the demise of a prime minister. If it matters, I can tell you, the 1922 Committee muscles do operate very definitely and very clearly.”

He gives me his favourite example. When Cameron called the vote in 2010, Brady found Cash in the tea room. They went to Cash’s office to retrieve a copy of the party constitution – Cash, a lawyer, had been shadow attorney general – and then went to the meeting. “The chief whip said the change was ‘to create unity and harmony’,” Cash says, “which is a load of rubbish. I got up and said: ‘This is unlawful.’ There was lot of toadying going on, people saying, ‘It’s a wonderful thing to do’.” He says toadying is normal at the ’22. “You always get people who get up and they’ve been told by the whips to say this, that and the other, and they do. You get used to it.” He caveats it slightly: “They’re not told by the whips – they just do what they feel the party leadership would like to hear.”

Cash instructed Michael Beloff KC, who agreed a rule change that would allow a prime minister to be immovable was unlawful and dangerous. Were it not for the ’22, May might still be prime minister. It is impossible to imagine that Johnson or Truss would have gone without a shove.

Cash delivered the opinion to Downing Street personally. “I said, ‘You can check this for yourselves because this is the opinion of one of the best QCs in the country. I’m going to wait for your reaction.” He said he would instruct Beloff to appear in the High Court, “and we will win”. By tea time the government had backed down. “Cameron didn’t take massive umbrage and sort of glare at you,” he says. “He’s an operator. Major got frightfully angry with me. Cameron was always courteous. God knows what he said behind the scenes.”

Cash adored Margaret Thatcher. When I ask if it is true that Peter Morrison, her ­parliamentary private secretary (PPS), was asleep before her confidence vote, Cash explodes. “He [Morrison] was drunk. Allegedly he was drunk. He was quite often drunk.” But it wasn’t the real reason she fell. Thatcher was initially polite to the ’22 – her former PPS Ian Gow took pages of notes at meetings, and she saw the chair promptly whenever he asked; but she eventually withdrew. Alan Clark wrote in his diary, “She’s storing up trouble,” and he was right. Thatcher did not engage in the family therapy, and war came.

In the depths of the Commons a bell rings and Cash rises instantly, like Pavlov’s MP: “Vote’s imminent, vote’s now, I must go.”

[See also: If the Tories are the party for hard-working people, why are they so spectacularly lazy?]

I speak to Archie Hamilton on the telephone. He was chair from 1997 to 2001, the only chair besides Brady still living. He is an old-school Tory, and courteous: the sort of man who says “orf” not “off”.

“There are always cynics and machine politicians who say that anyone who gets up and speaks at the 1922 must be mad,” Hamilton says. (This is a ’22 trope invented by David Walder, the former MP for High Peak. Walder’s Law states that “the first three people to speak at the ’22, on any subject, are mad”.) Hamilton disagrees: he experienced it as a necessary “opportunity for people to express concerns and feel there was an audience that was listening”. There are the deranged (during the Falklands War, Lord Onslow shouted: “Sink the whole [Argentine] fleet!”) but being listened to makes MPs feel loved. One member said of the late Irene Ward, MP for Tynemouth: “I could always tell when Irene was going to make a fuss, because she was wearing a new hat.”

After the ’22 knifed Thatcher, it was grumpy and divided. “It was very difficult to get agreement on almost any issue at all when I was chairman,” Hamilton says. “It was quite a fractious party. I think William Hague found it quite difficult.” (Alan Clark confirms this: “Hague really awful. Trite, insecure, verbal disconnection.”)

They didn’t speak about Thatcher in the ’22 after she had gone. “When you have assassinated a leader, you feel very guilty, but you don’t like going on about it,” Hamilton says. “I did fight very hard to defend her when she was going down.” But MPs were terrified of the polls. “The Tory party is quite ruthless at getting rid of leaders if they think they are ­going to lose their seats.”

Hamilton had a singular problem: Alan Clark. They served together at the Ministry of Defence, and Clark “constantly briefed against me in the press. So, I was deeply ­apprehensive about having him with me on the executive and I noticed him sitting there scribbling away.” (It wasn’t that bad: “Silence, except for a grunt from Hamilton who was looking very bad-tempered.”)

“I said, ‘Alan, I hope there’s no question of any of this coming out in your next edition of diaries.’” Clark replied: “‘Not till after I’m dead.’ Which wasn’t actually true.”

Watch: As targets grow on ministerial backs, the New Statesman podcast discusses if Foreign Secretaries often get an easier ride – and if that means Cameron will steal some of Sunak’s remaining credit.

I have been fascinated by Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne, since his raging monologue to a BBC news camera in the House of Commons’ central lobby in October last year. I think it was the speech that toppled Truss. “I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box,” he said of his colleagues. “Not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their own personal interest to achieve ministerial position.” He went on and on, digging a trench for Truss’s coffin: I’d never seen a political interview like it. She left No 10 six days later.

“It wasn’t me,” he says now in Portcullis House. “It was the Conservative Party.” Walker is affable and excitable: solemn and laughing by turns. “The back-bench Conservative Party is a powerful organisation, and that power is drawn from the 1922 ­Committee. It is important because it is the single most influential force that allows our party to regenerate, in a way that has always eluded Labour.”

As vice-chair of the ’22 for 11 years, ­Walker was in charge of pay and expenses negotiations. During the 2009 expenses scandal, he says, Cameron “was utterly ruthless in his dealing with members of parliament, many of us thought very unfairly and very brutally”. But the ’22 had its revenge when Cameron suggested that Liberal Democrats be allowed to address the committee during the coalition.

Walker smiles. “A year later the price of a cup of tea [in the Commons] was going to go up by 10p. I mean, let’s be honest, the ’22 is a trade union as well. It’s not just intrigue and leadership.” He acts out the following scene, playing multiple raging Tories. It sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan song.

“A cup of tea is going up 10p, can you believe it?”


“Who’s in charge of the Finance Committee? Who’s responsible for this?”

“Lord Thurso, the Liberal Democrat MP!”

“Bring him here at once!”

“So the first and only Liberal Democrat to address the 1922 Committee,” Walker giggles, “was Lord Thurso, over the price of a cup of tea. I just absolutely loved it. No way were we going to have – who’s the dancing MP?” Vince Cable? “No way was Vince Cable, the business secretary, ever going to be allowed to address the ’22. But when it came to a cup of tea: ‘Bring him here now!’”

Walker adored Theresa May. Her defenestration was “one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in politics. I don’t think it was the ’22’s finest hour. We had people on the ­committee who were determined to get rid of Theresa and I felt didn’t extend her the respect she deserved as the prime minister.

“It was a shocking time, a very ­distressing time. It’s part of its ruthlessness – it’s not slow in dispatching wounded prime ­ministers.” Walker always sat next to May at ’22 meetings: “I felt she needed someone next to her who offered her unconditional support.”

“None of the meetings were happy,” he says, of the end of May’s premiership. “Brady was magnificent at trying to find a consensus. We would unite around a position. Within moments of the meeting ending there were attempts by people to undermine that ­position. That was nothing do with Brady’s chairmanship, it was the sheer weight of the pressure.”

After the disastrous 2017 general election, there was an “amazing” meeting. “Theresa stood up to the ’22 and said, ‘I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out of this mess.’ She was cheered to the roof. The Conservative Party is very good to its leaders, up to a point.” The ’22 was likewise “thrilled” when Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt by a clear margin in the July 2019 leadership race. Walker ran that contest and talks about it as if it were Eurovision: “Boris was great, Jeremy was great!”

But, as in divorce, when trust is lost it’s irretrievable. “Even if you win a confidence vote you are mortally wounded,” Walker says. Thatcher, May and Johnson won confidence votes but fell shortly afterwards: only Iain Duncan Smith lost one and only Major (“Back me or sack me”) survived one. “It’s hard to come back from that. There’s not” – Walker wears an expression of bitter compassion – “a high survival rate. It’s a bit like when the ground goes from underneath you if you’re standing on the edge of an ice precipice. Once it starts to go, it goes.” His majority in Broxbourne is 19,807 and he leaves parliament at the next election. “I’m sure I’ll miss it terribly.”

I speak to Bernard Jenkin, MP for Harwich and North Essex, on the day the Privileges Committee Report is published, which concluded that Johnson had deliberately misled parliament over partygate. Jenkin says that if I ask about the report, he will end the ­conversation, so I don’t. That morning Johnson had suggested that Jenkin should resign from the Privileges Committee because he had attended a party during Covid restrictions, ­allegations that Jenkin denies. Johnson’s rage is a triumph for the ’22: its members brought the confidence vote, and its stalwarts ­finished him.

“Anything you say in the 1922 Committee is likely to be briefed, or leaked, or ignored,” Jenkin says. “It’s intended to be a leak-proof meeting but nobody in their right mind would say anything that they are not prepared to have reported in public… I suspect it’s always been like that.” He sounds tired but Boris Johnson will do that to you. Instead, Jenkin says, people use informal channels to pass their opinions and complaints to the leadership.

He emphasises that the ’22 merely reflects a political reality: that the Tory leader has to have the confidence of the parliamentary party. He reminds me that Johnson was threatening to stand again for the leadership last autumn, after Truss’s defenestration. “There was speculation that he would have won the membership round. But one reason he did not stand may have been because he knew if he won the membership ballot, he still could not have commanded the confidence of a majority of the parliamentary party.”

What of Rishi Sunak? Brady says: “Early meetings of the executive with the Prime Minister have been constructive. He seems interested in the views of colleagues and is happy to engage openly.” The ’22’s public statements are soporific, so much so that I feel they are living in a parallel reality. Perhaps it is the magical power of Committee Room 14.

But there is no chance Sunak will be forced out before the next general election: he has made no unforgivable error and, in any case, who would be willing to take his place? The party has, as Walker says, “had three rounds of bloodletting”; it is quiet for now. If Sunak fails in 2024 there will be a violent post-mortem, and another battle for the Tory soul. The ’22 is most active – and powerful – in times of chaos, so it will be busy then.

But not everyone has lost faith. Bill Cash thinks they will win.  

[See also: The Tory crack-up]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world