By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron attempted to abolish the 1922 Committee, in effect, at the beginning of this Parliament. He did so by trying to ensure that front benchers gained the right to vote in its elections. If successful, this change would have ensured that the '22 no longer existed, since its purpose since foundation has been to represent backbench opinion – and ultimately to remind the leader of the day that he is the servant of the party, not its master.
The revision Mr Cameron wanted was passed in a ballot by 168 to 118 votes, which recorded well over half of all Conservative MPs as opposed to the plan. He was then told by senior Whips and others that Graham Brady, the right-of-party-centre candidate for '22 Chairman, whose election he opposed, would win the coming contest anyway, in a backlash against the forcing of the ballot. The bid to abolish the '22 would thus have had precisely the result it was crafted to prevent.
Mr Cameron thus backed off, and the bid failed. The question some Conservative MPs are asking themselves this morning is whether he is once again trying to force his will on backbench MPs.
Today's '22 elections will see Ministers' Parliamentary Private Secretaries allowed to vote – a breach of the principle that only backbenchers vote in '22 elections. And this morning's Daily Telegraph claims, as James Forsyth suggested yesterday, that George Osborne yesterday presided over "a special briefing of the modernising 301 group of Conservative MPs in Westminster".
It adds that this came "after Mr Cameron hosted a drink for specially-chosen Conservative MPs at his flat in Downing Street on Monday night". The Guardian reports that Downing Street aides are playing down "chances of success in Wednesday's elections". This is a pretty rum thing for it to do, since the '22 elections, after all, don't involve Downing Street at all.
The Telegraph report says:
"One MP told The Daily Telegraph: “This is groundhog day – it’s just a different way to try to nobble the committee. He [Mr Cameron] is surrounding himself with ‘yes’ men. It shows a lack of political judgement – that is what most colleagues are saying. The PPSs have been told to vote for them.” The MP said the moves were an example of “political ineptitude”, adding a message for the Prime Minister: “Remember you are mortal.”
There are now three main possible outcomes this evening when the results are declared.
- The 301 slate, backed by Messrs Cameron and Osborne, wins. Given the balance of opinion in the Parliamentary Party, it is unlikely to do so overwhelmingly. This will leave the losers, drawn largely from right-of-the-party's-centre, more angry with Mr Cameron than they were before the contest began.
- The 301 slate loses. This would now be read – given the interefence from Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron in the election – as a defeat for the leadership, which would damage its authority and standing.
- The result is inconclusive. Since many MPs vote for their friends, or to colleagues who they want to favour, or ones they're impressed by – rather than slavishly follow a ticket – this is the most likely outcome (though with '22 elections one never knows). The large number of candidates standing for the 12 '22 Committee places – some independents are standing who aren't on any slate – will also complicate the calculations of the campaign managers. By contrast, the ballot for the two secretary posts sees Karen Bradley and Charlie Elphicke backed by the 301 Group, and Christopher Chope and Nick De Bois supported by the nexus of right-wing groups in which Cornerstone and the No Turning Back Group are prominent. This poll will therefore offer a more clean-cut result.
But whatever it delivers, there will be more bad feeling about the manner in which the election has been conducted (which has already brought about the regrettable withdrawal from the contest of Nicholas Soames and Tracey Crouch) at its end than there was at its start – swollen in some cases by personal defeat at the polls.
And since the party leadership can only lose from such an end rather than gain, a question inevitably follows: namely, have Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne been well advised – as the more old-fashioned sort of Tory MP might put it – to get involved in this '22 election in the first place?