Economic slump, strikes, corruption and sale of honours, trouble in Northern Ireland, Government in a mess, big political changes in the offing. Britain in election year 1922. In April 1923 newly elected Tory MPs, members of a dining group, formed an association – the Conservative Private Members Committee - soon known as the 1922 Committee. It was open to all Tory backbenchers, its purpose to convey rank and file views to the (short-lived) Prime Minister, Bonar Law.
The 1922 Committee organise the ‘men in grey suits’ who visit Tory Prime Ministers signalling that their end is nigh. It is in charge of the Conservative Party’s process for selecting the Party leader and therefore, when in power, Prime Minister. The amiable Salford-born Sir Graham Brady, its chairman, appears from the shadows, reminiscent of a kindly old-fashioned Grammar school headmaster announcing the exam results. Possibly the comparison is deceptive. Here is a man holding a treasure trove of Tory secrets, with authority over a body with unspecified powers.
According to a House of Commons Library briefing paper, there are two stages in the process of selecting a Conservative Party leader. First the 1922 Committee specifies the number of nominations required of candidates, sets the overall timetable, and the Parliamentary Labour Party votes to determine the two finalists. Then a period in which candidates battle it out for votes and lastly a ballot of Conservative Party members who choose between the two.
Boris Johnson resigned on 7 July. Nominations for his successor closed at 18:00 on Tuesday 12 July with candidates needing support from 20 fellow MPs. Eight made the first ballot. The Parliamentary Party finally placed Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Rishi Sunak, formerly Chancellor of the Exchequer on the shortlist. The choice now rests with Party members and will be announced on 5 September in time for the new Prime Minister to prepare for Party Conference.
Given the overlapping crises and catastrophic shambles Johnson was bequeathing to his successor, why didn’t the Committee appoint a competent caretaker and institute a selection procedure that got a new Prime Minister in place as fast as possible? We were, and are, facing a cost of living national emergency. These are experienced politicians who should have had the country’s interest at heart.
The potential effect this winter of soaring energy costs on the poor is such that the Minister of State for Work and Pensions (DWP), Thérèse Coffey, is preventing publication of research on the impact of the benefit cap (£13,400 outside London) and other DWP measures which affect the poorest including 1.3 million children in families already unable to afford basic necessities. Protests from the Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms who chairs the Parliamentary Select Committee on Work and Pensions are ignored. As Gordon Brown pointed out in The Guardian on August 11th, universal credit and benefits have to be reprogrammed on the DWP’s computers in the next few days (an 80% increase in energy bills is expected to be announced on 26 August) if help is to reach all who need it when energy prices shoot up again in October.
Thanks to decisions taken by the 1922 Committee, or lack of them, we have what the New York Times calls a ‘power vacuum’ and the Labour Party a ‘Zombie Government’. Cameron, who in his arrogance could not believe he would lose the BREXIT vote, resigned on 24 June 2016 and stepped down on 13 July. Theresa May at a BREXIT impasse, sabotaged by the Ulster Unionists and undermined by disappointing election results as well as Boris Johnson himself, resigned on 7 June 2019 and stepped down on 24 July after a scheduled visit from Donald Trump. Both Cameron and May continued briefly and responsibly in office until a new Prime Minister was appointed.
Boris Johnson agreed to resign after a two day avalanche of resignations by his ministers set off by his repeated lying to Parliament. Now on his second holiday, thanks to the 1922 Committee’s timetable he is taking almost two leisurely months to step down. It took him a month after resigning to focus on the energy crisis and talk to leaders of the sector. Several prominent MPs and former Conservative Ministers called for him to go immediately. And they were quite right.
My suspicion is that the only way the men in grey suits got him to resign at all was by agreeing to his swanning around for a further eight weeks and not suffering the ignominy of being thrown out overnight. It is not hard to imagine the kind of damage he could cause if they had insisted on an immediate departure. Johnson clearly still had a parliamentary following and significant residual support in the Party and the country that could be activated (and is now rearing its head). But a tough stance was the lesser of two evils. Sir Graham Brady, whether considering consequences for Party or country, made a big mistake.
Quite apart from the damage to the nation of eight weeks’ time-out from urgent decisions while crises became worse, the long march through the hustings by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak was, and is, politically an own goal. Candidates believe they have to say what they think their members want to hear regardless of what even Conservative voters may think. Polls suggest the Tory membership is worried about the little dinghies crossing the Channel so each contestant wants a flight full of migrants to get off the ground soonest to Rwanda. Thank heavens the shires don’t want to bring back hanging. Truss will say anything. From her past record she can blithely reverse a policy or position even if very little time has passed since she announced it. Sunak, beginning to regret his theme song of fiscal responsibility, seems frantic as key Tory backers decide their best chance of a front-bench job lies with Truss. The Labour Party and Sir Keir Starmer finally got lucky after twelve years in the wilderness as a degrading and revealing piece of political theatre tours Britain courtesy of the 1922 Committee.
Poor Sir Graham. It could have been different. Headteachers need to be tough and decisive as well as discreet and kindly. He might have noticed that Johnson’s misdemeanours were a little more serious than smoking behind the bicycle sheds and decided that the gravity of the situation, the damage Johnson had done to this country called for prompt as well as drastic action: immediate and permanent exclusion.
See TheArticle 18/08/2022