These eve-of-battle 1922 committee meetings have a set format. The leader appeals to Party unity, and asks Tory MPs not to rock the boat and risk a Labour Government. Those plotting against her – or him – cheer to the rafters.
A few popular and senior MPs, usually former Ministers, are then called early to help set the tone. Part of their invariable mission is to lay into the media. Huge cheers (before MPs from all factions rush out to brief their favourite lobby contacts). Among those ex-Ministers who fulfilled this function today were Richard Benyon and Robert Goodwill, one a bit leftish of party centre, the other a little rightish.
Others seek to score off colleagues they don’t care for, or who have exasperated them for some reason, or who have some different viewpoint. This takes more than a little skill; one doesn’t want to backfire. This site is told that Keith Simpson triumphantly carried off the prize this evening, taking an applauded side-swipe at an unnamed but clearly identifiable Boris Johnson.
Mind you, the pleas for unity weren’t entirely artificial. In some cases, far from it. Theresa Villiers made the point that marginal seats, like hers at Chipping Barnet, are at risk, and that Conservative MPs should rally round the Prime Minister. And the core of Theresa May’s case about this week’s votes was unanswerable: don’t strengthen the other side’s hand in the negotiation.
Apparently, the Prime Minister made a point of admitting that views on Brexit in the Parliamentary Party differ, and that the subject is a cause of division. As one perceptive MP pointed out, this was a way of stressing her utility as leader – as someone who can manage and reconcile these conflicting views. John Major sometimes used the same gambit during the 1990s.
“It was like a meeting of the Russian Parliament,” one MP present at the meeting told ConHome. (An exception being Philip Davies, who openly questioned the recent drift and hesitation.) But for all the cheering and desk-banging, it is likely that only a few crucial votes are in play. Whatever sways Dominic Grieve or Anna Soubry or Sarah Wollaston, it won’t be what is said at a ’22 meeting.
We now wait to see whether the Remainer rebels spring a hidden trap, or whether they will hold their fire until after the June council, and wait for the Customs and Trade Bills to come to the Commons.