Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, is determined to ensure that in any coalition talks which may be needed in 2015 the views of Tory backbenchers will not be ignored or taken for granted.
In an interview with ConHome, Mr Brady revealed that by the next general election, a “protocol” will be in place which lays down how, in the event of a hung parliament, Tory MPs will take part in “a definitive consultation with a vote” on whether or not to form another coalition. He added that David Cameron had agreed to this.
In Mr Brady’s personal opinion, which he expressed at the time, it would have been better to form a minority Tory government in May 2010 rather than a coalition. He would also prefer to see a “planned separation” between the Tories and the Lib Dems before the next election, and says this would “reduce the likelihood of a chaotic and rancorous end” to the coalition.
Mr Brady, who as chairman of the ’22 is the elected representative of Conservative backbenchers, said the terms of the protocol should remain secret. He rejected the argument that maintaining such secrecy would prove impractical when faced by demands from the media for clarity.
But he described in detail the machinery by which Tory backbenchers can between now and next summer feed in policy ideas for the next Tory manifesto. He lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” which lead many backbenchers to decline to make use of this machinery.
In 2007, Mr Brady demonstrated his independence by resigning from the Tory front bench because he is a passionate supporter of grammar schools, which the leadership was (and is) opposing. During that row, David Cameron described the advocates of grammar schools as “delusional”, but Mr Brady’s position continues to command wide support within the party.
In this interview, Mr Brady urges the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to push for the power to set up new grammar schools in London. Mr Brady was himself wearing a pair of Altrincham Grammar School cufflinks: the school which he attended in his constituency of Altrincham and Sale.
ConHome: “How would Tory backbenchers give or indeed withhold their consent in circumstances where a new coalition was on the cards?”
Mr Brady: “I don’t want to be drawn on that really, because I think it is wise that we focus instead on the effort to win a majority. Too much discussion of what might happen if we don’t might divert from that objective. I think the whole of the party recognises that there would be a need for proper consultation and that would I think include a definitive consultation by a vote. I think that’s been accepted obviously by David Cameron as well.”
ConHome: “And what form would the vote take?”
Mr Brady: “I think these are points of detail.”
ConHome: “But they’re important points of detail.”
Mr Brady: “They’re important points of detail for us to develop a protocol.”
ConHome: “So there will be a protocol in place.”
Mr Brady: “There will, but I don’t envisage it being a public document.”
ConHome: “Don’t you think it would be easier if you did make it public well in advance? Because otherwise you’re going to get very tiresome people, considerably more tiresome than me if that’s possible, asking you during the election, when the polls say there might be a hung parliament, tell us how it will work. This far forward you could have it all beyond dispute.”
Mr Brady: “I think these are matters on which I will be guided by my elected executive. I think it’s important that we have a clear sense of how these matters will be dealt with in the event of the unthinkable happening.”
ConHome: “‘Unthinkable’ is an amusing or an understandable term [with which to describe a hung parliament]. But it’s not unthinkable: it happened in 2010. If it happens again in 2015, will party members also be consulted?”
Mr Brady: “I have said publicly that I think the widest consultation possible is a good thing. To an extent those matters are about time pressures.”
ConHome: “Do you think the whole thing might – without Germanic levels of slow deliberation – be a more leisurely process, not done within five days for example?”
Mr Brady: “I think it is our intention that by the time of the next general election the imminent danger of economic catastrophe will be firmly behind us, so to that extent some of the pressures that were present in 2010 will not be there.”
ConHome: “But we do have a tradition of sudden death, or of fixing these things up very, very quickly.”
Mr Brady: “We do. We do. Yes. Of course we don’t have a tradition of a fixed-term Parliament either.”
ConHome: “The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is an abomination. It may be a pragmatic abomination. I can see there’s a pragmatic case for it, so that one coalition party isn’t worried that the other is going to leave it in the lurch.”
Mr Brady: “I think it was regrettable that such a profound constitutional change was undertaken with so little consideration and consultation. And I think it does risk having quite serious implications for British politics in the future, in circumstances which were never envisaged at the time it was enacted. Certainly I think as an advocate of a greater separation of powers between the executive and the legislature I think it’s an interesting if inadvertent move away from the fundamental principles of parliamentary government. It’s always been understood in this country that a government exists whilst it can enjoy the support of a majority in the House of Commons. We’ve moved to a position where a government exists for five years unless it is voted against by two-thirds of the House of Commons in a confidence vote.”
ConHome: “So you’d quite like to get rid of that.”
Mr Brady: “Yes. But I’m not sure that’s going to be in the Conservative manifesto.”
ConHome: “In the manifesto there will presumably be given serious thought to what are red lines and what are negotiable.”
Mr Brady: “I think it’s important the Conservative manifesto is an appeal to the electorate for a Conservative majority. So of course there will be things that are more salient and carry more weight.”
ConHome: “What is the means by which Tory MPs will have their say on the contents of the 2015 manifesto?”
Mr Brady: “Structurally I’m quite pleased with it. It remains to be seen how it works in practice, and how what we do translates into the manifesto itself. But broadly the framework that I agreed with David Cameron early in the Parliament was that we would establish these five backbench policy committees, and that the committees for the first half of the Parliament would be principally about forming a conduit for the day-to-day conversation, consultation, briefing and so on. That has worked reasonably well.
“The perennial problem which has existed for decades and is probably now worse than ever of finding a time when colleagues can come along remains. Attendance is often quite small and depends very much on whether the subject is sexy at the time.
“The second part of the strategy agreed was that as we move through the Parliament they would then become the core of the input by colleagues into the manifesto process and policy development, and I suppose that’s what I really had in mind in calling them backbench policy committees rather than just backbench committees. And structurally I now think we’ve got the bones of how that process can work. That the policy board which was set up in July, and again we agreed that the obvious principal interlocutor for the relevant policy board members for the different departmental areas would be the chairman of the backbench policy committee covering that area, so that took a little while to start to develop before the next stage that was announced a few weeks ago, which was the creation of these policy commissions. And again structurally it guarantees some representation for backbench colleagues. The chairman of the relevant backbench policy committee is on each of the commissions. Where we have a select committee chairman they can attend. And I have suggested – it hasn’t met with any resistance but I’ve yet to see if it’s happened – that might happen too when we have a senior member of a select committee but don’t have the chair of that committee. And then the other members: the relevant secretary of state would chair, and the other secretary of state or most senior minister would attend where it’s that department’s business. There are the SPADs where relevant, and the policy unit SPAD. There are then the policy unit members for that area, and I and Grant Shapps, the Party Chairman, can attend all the meetings. I’m trying to attend all of them.”
ConHome: “How many meetings will there be?”
Mr Brady: “We don’t yet know. There are five commissions. I think it would be remarkable if they could do their work in any worthwhile way in fewer than three meetings, and I’d have thought five was more realistic in most cases. Essentially the commissions will make recommendations to the Prime Minister next summer, so this process should be taking shape, and doing the heavy lift, through the spring, and I would have thought most of the meetings should have taken place by Easter. The first one we had was the foreign affairs, defence and international development commission, which was a very good meeting chaired by William Hague. We were scoping, I suppose, the broad outline of an approach, and it’s wonderfully encouraging that when you get a group of Conservatives in a room they do actually often find they have quite a lot in common [laughter]. We should try it more often.To exclude other parties is sometimes cathartic.
“The weak link so far is that we need to make sure that backbench colleagues really engage in the policy committees in order to make sure that the chairman of the policy committee and I are reflecting things other than just our own views. We’re very keen to encourage more engagement in that process.”
ConHome: “So you think some of them might assume it’s not really worth their while.”
Mr Brady: “There’s a long tail of ennui and apathy and cynicism, dare one say, so we’re battling against that and against shortage of time. The parliamentary week now is ridiculously compressed into relatively few days and rather shorter days than they used to be.”
ConHome: “Just finishing up on the manifesto. Eventually it will be written by someone like Jo Johnson, head of the Downing Street policy unit.”
Brady: “Yes. And will be approved by the Prime Minister and will doubtless be washed through various other people who are close to the Prime Minister. And that will always be the case. What I think we have to have in place is a worthwhile process which makes sure there is an opportunity for wide input from colleagues, and through colleagues from the wider party. At the first policy commission meeting I was at there was also reference to some of the findings of Conservative Policy Forum meetings.
“If you don’t bother contributing to a process then you have very little right to expect your views to be reflected at the end of it. If you do engage fully in the process then you have a reasonable expectation that your views will help to shape the final product. It doesn’t mean any of us will get all of our preferences reflected in the Conservative manifesto.”
ConHome: “Of course there was a great machinery in 2005-2010 of policy groups. But how much of that then got reflected in the manifesto?”
Mr Brady: “Er, I’m not sure. I wasn’t closely involved in the policy groups.”
ConHome: “Very little, I would have thought.”
Mr Brady: “Quite.”
ConHome: “You obviously regard it as part of your role to be very vigilant.”
Mr Brady: “The absolute core of the purpose of the 1922 Committee and of its elected executive and particularly the elected chairman is to make sure that the lines of communication between the back bench and the leadership of the party are as good and as clear as possible. And there are few more important tasks to be performed than making sure our input into the manifesto process is as good and as clear as it can be.”
ConHome: “So what sort of things are you hoping to see in the manifesto?”
Mr Brady: “I don’t think I should really give a sort of Brady manifesto, much as I hope it would find resonance with good Conservatives across the nation. But I think that clearly we have got a task of setting out a really clear, compelling Conservative narrative, separate from the coalition, that really starts to put some flesh on the bones of what we would do as a majority government and how that would be better and how it would be different.”
ConHome: “How should Conservatives get on with the Liberal Democrats in the period leading up to the general election?”
Mr Brady: “My own view, which is a private view for which I claim no special status, has always been that we should have a planned separation before the general election, and that that would help to avoid a period of increasingly rancorous relations within the coalition. It isn’t currently the view of the leadership of either the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats, who maintain that it is preferable to go right the way up to the wire as a single coalition. By making the separation planned, deliberate and civilised you can reduce the likelihood of a chaotic and rancorous end. You move to confidence and supply, which some of us might have preferred at the outset.”
ConHome: “Where have we got to on grammar schools?”
Mr Brady: “I have the privilege and good fortune of representing my home town, where we still have a wholly selective education system, which gets probably the best state-school results in the country. And it would be a gross dereliction of duty if I didn’t defend what we have, but I also think it’d be wrong if I didn’t make the point that what we achieve might hold some lessons for other places where they have lower educational outcomes. And some of the comments from the Chief Inspector reported over the weekend were deeply, deeply unsatisfactory. First of all I find it astonishing that he spends his time criticising some of the best schools in the country, rather than focussing his attention on schools which are failing to achieve. Secondly, in the context of my own borough of Trafford, and I’m sure this applies in other selective areas as well, to suggest that the grammar schools are looking after those who go to grammar schools but all of the others are left to fail is deeply deeply offensive to the outstanding high schools that operate alongside the grammar schools. And in the context of Trafford, our results are probably the best in the country. Our high schools often do better than all-ability comprehensives in other parts of the country.”
ConHome: “What do you think the state of opinion is in the parliamentary party is on this issue?”
Mr Brady: “I think there is a great deal of sympathy for more grammar schools.”
ConHome: “Boris Johnson is one of the few senior Tories who frequently speaks up in favour of selection.”
Mr Brady: “Well I hope he will start pushing for the powers to open some new grammar schools in London.”