Every Wednesday at 5pm, in the oak-panelled surroundings of parliament’s Committee Room 14, one of the most powerful bodies in the land assembles. The 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers has the ability to determine a Tory leader’s fate before the electorate has a chance.
On 12 June 2017, four days after squandering the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, Theresa May appeared in front of the 22 and vowed to serve only “as long as you want me”. Her words were an acknowledgment of a changed balance of power. Unlike their Labour counterparts, Conservative MPs have the ability to remove their leader. May’s recent woes, and the desire of an increasing number to oust her, make the 22 central to the party’s future.
Under Conservative rules, a vote of confidence in the party leader is triggered when at least 15 per cent of Tory MPs (48 at present) write to the 1922 Committee chairman, Graham Brady, requesting one. Only Brady, the 50-year-old MP for Altrincham and Sale West, knows for certain how many letters there are. The epistolary assassins are guaranteed anonymity – unless they choose to make their intentions public.
Before Brady succeeded Michael Spicer as chairman, the letters required annual renewal, but they now remain on file unless withdrawn. If the Conservative leader wins any confidence vote she remains in office and is rewarded with a year’s immunity. If she loses, she is obliged to resign and barred from standing in the leadership election that follows.
The 1922 Committee was pivotal to the last deposition of a Tory leader. On 27 October 2003, MPs initiated a vote of confidence in Iain Duncan Smith (18 days after his dismal conference speech), which the future work and pensions secretary lost by 90 votes to 75.
Throughout its history, the 22 has been synonymous with orderly dissent. Its name derives from the 19 October 1922 Carlton Club meeting at which Conservative rebels, led by Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin, successfully demanded the party’s withdrawal from the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George’s coalition government. After the subsequent general election, which led to the formation of a Bonar Law-led Conservative administration, the 1922 Committee began in 1923 as a private dining club of new MPs. By 1926, all backbench Tory MPs were permitted to become members.
Ever since, Conservative leaders have taken heed of the 22. As well as bearing the formal power to trigger a confidence vote, its senior members are regarded as “the men in grey suits” who can prevail upon a leader to resign. The 22 meets once a week (its executive committee for an hour before) and the prime minister is expected to appear quarterly and at significant political junctures.
All six members of the executive (Brady, vice chairs Cheryl Gillan and Charles Walker, secretaries Bob Blackman and Nigel Evans, and treasurer Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) backed Brexit, and the 22 has long been led by the Tories’ Eurosceptic wing. During John Major’s premiership, it embodied backbench discontent over the passage of the Maastricht Treaty. It was on the advice of Major that David Cameron sought to reform the committee in 2010 by allowing government ministers to elect its executive. “Essentially what Cameron wanted to do was nationalise the committee,” Brady recalled when we spoke.
Although Cameron won a vote of Tory MPs on the measure by 168 to 118, the rebellion was sufficient for him to retreat. (Bill Cash, the doyen of Eurosceptics, threatened legal action against the move.) Conservative frontbenchers are now permitted to attend 22 meetings but have no voting rights.
Brady, who resigned as shadow Europe minister in 2007 in protest at Cameron’s criticism of grammar schools, has served as chairman since 2010 and is respected by all wings of the party. At the annual 1922 Committee party at this year’s Conservative conference, the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft mischievously praised Brady’s “strong and stable leadership” as May looked on.
Yet since the Prime Minister’s electoral humbling, the 22 has been a source of counsel and support. It was Brady who advised May to give a contrite broadcast interview after MPs were stunned by her defiant post-election Downing Street statement.
When Grant Shapps, the former Conservative chairman, was revealed to be plotting against the Prime Minister, 1922 executive members Charles Walker and Nigel Evans robustly denounced him in broadcast interviews.
“I don’t think there is any real demand for a general election or for a leadership election,” Brady told me. “My position is to counsel against a confidence vote because I don’t think it’s in the national interest to contemplate it.”
However, should the letters contained in his safe reach 48 (Shapps claimed the support of around 30 Tory MPs), Brady is unambiguous about the consequences. “It would be my duty to make sure it [a vote] happened.”
This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled