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17 May 2012

Dissenting Tories pushed out of backbench committee

MPs broadly sympathetic to the leadership are elected to influential 1922 committee.

By Samira Shackle

If there is one thing the Conservative Party has in ample supply at the moment, it is internal tension about the direction of travel. This was reflected in elections for the influential 1922 committee of backbench MPs last night.

The 1922 committee is seen as a barometer of backbench opinion, and gives MPs a forum to connect with the leadership. It has long been a thorn in the side of David Cameron, who caused outrage early in his premiership by attempting to reform the committee so that ministers could become full members. He eventually backed down on this move, which Gary Gibbon described as akin to “the management demanding seats on the union negotiating team”.

However, it looks as if the Prime Minister might have managed to neutralise the committee, which is frequently critical of the leadership and has largely represented the party’s Eurosceptic, traditional right wing, frustrated with the compromise of coalition.

After elections for the committee last night, several long serving MPs who are critical of the coalition and Cameron’s modernising agenda were voted off, including Peter Bone and Christopher Chope. In their place, candidates from the “301” group of MPs – so called because it represents the number of MPs needed for an overall majority at the next election – were elected. These MPs, many of whom are from the 2010 intake, are broadly supportive of the leadership and believe that the 1922 committee should be modernised.

So what does this mean? Firstly, while there will be cause for celebration in both Downing Street and the Treasury, it is perhaps needless to say that this is unlikely to be the end for internal strife. Over at ConservativeHome, Paul Goodman says he is “not altogether persuaded” that allies of Cameron and George Osborne didn’t interfere in the elections, warns:

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Some of those who weren’t re-elected – or elected at all – may feel that they now have nothing to lose in criticising the government very strongly indeed.

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As James Forsyth points out at the Spectator, this election had a 93.8 per cent turnout, making it very representative of the parliamentary party. However, no single group was victorious – some of the “old guard” hung onto their places. This says something about the state of the Tory party and the direction its members want it to go. A Guardian editorial today explains the dilemma thus:

The question that really divides the party is whether in the face of austerity it returns to an enhanced core-vote strategy of shoring up the right flank from Ukip by focusing on the traditional crime, immigration and Europe agenda, or whether to keep faith, despite the vastly altered circumstances, in Cameron’s modernising programme and anchor the party to the centre-right.

As this election shows, the battle is very much yet to be won.