When David Cameron spoke at the 90th anniversary party of the 1922 committee earlier this week, he used glowing terms to praise its chairman Graham Brady and urge backbenchers to ‘stick to our guns’. Anyone would think he hadn’t tried to abolish it in effect by allowing ministers to attend and vote shortly after the Coalition had formed. That the Tory leadership backed down on this, in spite of winning the vote that would have introduced the change, was well-reported at the time. But one of the key things that precipitated the climbdown has been a secret until now.
Bill Cash, one of the MPs most enraged by Cameron’s attempt to change the committee at the time, has spoken exclusively to Coffee House about the extraordinary events of the week that the voice of Tory backbenchers nearly lost its power. It was in fact a threat of court action that led the leadership to back down and allow ministers only to attend and not vote at the committee.
The change that David Cameron proposed would have had serious implications for the way the Conservatives reacted to Coalition, as giving ministers the vote would have, as James explained at the time, stifled its role as a forum for backbench opinion. The Prime Minister called a special meeting of the parliamentary conservative party on 19 May 2010 and told them to preserve ‘unity’ and ‘harmony’ during a Coalition government, ministers should be included. A few other loyal MPs spoke up to support the idea, with one arguing that Winston Churchill had done the same during the war, and then a few others raised concerns. But then the party was told that the ballot to approve the change was now open in a committee room down the corridor. The vote was then won 168 to 118.
But Cash was so horrified by the announcement that he sought advice from a QC on whether approving a change to the 1922 committee with a vote of the parliamentary party was legal. He also discovered that Churchill had not, as was claimed at the meeting, made the same changes when he was Prime Minister: in fact he had looked at the same idea being proposed and had said it was impossible.
He then held a meeting with the key leadership figures involved in the changes in Downing Street the following Monday, where he also presented them with a letter that explained the QC’s opinion, and warned the leadership that it could face court action if it tried to proceed with the change.
On that day, a Tory spokesman clarified that ministers would be able to attend but not vote. Brady was later elected 1922 committee chair, partly because he was seen as being the most opposed to the measure.
Cash has never spoken before about his threat to the leadership about the consequences of the change, and tells me that celebrating the 90th anniversary reminded him of how fragile the institution being praised that evening really is.
‘It came so close to being lost only a few years ago, but this week we had warm words and praise from everyone at the party, which shows how far things have come since. But we nearly lost the ’22, which is the voice of the backbench Conservatives, and I was reminded of that this week.’
There are of course some loyalists who would still like this change – Claire Perry repeated the idea in her Coffee House interview in January – but if the time that’s passed since that ballot has taught the Prime Minister anything, it’s that he ignores the voices of his backbenchers at his peril.