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The 1922 Committee: how the Tories’ men in grey suits wield power

The group of Conservative backbenchers can determine a Tory leader’s fate before the electorate has a chance.

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Brady succeeded Michael Spicer as chairman, the letters required annual renewal, but they now remain on file unless withdrawn.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.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”