Greg Hands is MP for Chelsea and Fulham
I suspect that the coming leadership election will focus on Brexit, the right balance between cutting taxes, reducing debt and raising spending in a post-Deficit Britain, and on personality and leadership issues.
I was a member of the Parliamentary Party in the last two leadership contests: in 2005, the focus was very much on Party modernisation, but in 2016, for very obvious reasons, the focus was on Brexit. David Cameron achieved a great deal in bringing the Party up to date. When I was first elected an MP in 2005, I was joined by only two minority MPs and only around ten per cent were women. Both figures are astonishing in 2019. Party finances, structures and selections have been brought more up to date, with excellent work from Party Chairmen like Francis Maude, Andrew Feldman and Grant Shapps, amongst others.
But one crucial aspect of the Conservative Party has not been reformed since, well, probably 1922 itself: the functioning of the Parliamentary Party itself. This is not an attack on the 1922 Committee – far from it, I am calling for an increased role for it. The problem is essentially twofold: there is too little sense of common purpose and there is far too little interaction with the Party Leader. Both are linked.
In my 14 years as an MP, I still find it incredible that the Party Leader appears before his or her MPs generally only three times a year, typically for an “end of term address” for 10-15 minutes, with no questions. I don’t know of any other mainstream political party that operates on this basis. Angela Merkel appears before her CDU/CSU parliamentary group generally every sitting week to comment on coming business and to answer questions from rank and file MPs. Even Jeremy Corbyn, who has had a difficult relationship with his Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), is there most weeks.
Furthermore, no account was made of the new realities of the situation facing the Parliamentary Party as it went into coalition in 2010, or having a wafer-thin majority in 2015, or no majority at all from 2017. The structures remained unchanged. Both David Cameron and Theresa May have suffered from this physical inability to get their message across to their own Party, and the situation has gotten worse, not better.
Nobody would run anything the way that we do. The mechanism of an end of term address belongs to a bygone age, where the Leader’s power was almost absolute, especially when in government. The Whips would enforce for the rest of the term. Nobody would run a modern business like this, with the CEO doing a floor walk or addressing the workforce only three times a year.
Modern MPs expect to be of more influence. Being unable to interact with the Leader in a mature way, and to ask questions at a private meeting, would reduce the recent practice of Conservative MPs using PMQs to express their unhappiness with government policy or the Leader in a way that was rarely the case before 2010. I sincerely believe that if MPs were given a more genuine opportunity to question their Leader, we would have less airing of our dirty laundry in public.
This can all be done under the auspices of the existing 1922 Committee structure. Sir Graham Brady would chair the meeting, and having the Leader available to answer questions would increase attendance and increase the power of the 1922 Chairman.
Some reform was attempted under David Cameron, but this was approached in the wrong way. Cameron held regular Parliamentary Party meetings in Opposition, 2005-2010, chaired by the Chief Whip. These were seen as an attempt to circumvent the 1922 Committee, and created bad feeling. Added to this was the botched attempt by Cameron, badly advised by Sir John Major, to reform the 1922 Committee itself to allow ministers into it. All of this was wholly unnecessary. I strongly maintain that the existing 1922 structure should have the sole prerogative, but should feature an address from, and questions to, the Leader as well.
It couldn’t come a moment too soon. The lack of proper interaction with the Party Leader is damaging our party – particularly when in Government, where the civil service dislikes this kind of unregulated interaction when they aren’t in the room.
Further, social media has exacerbated the problem. Nobody wants to wait until “the end of term” to vent their unhappiness with the Leader or seek to influence policy. Nowadays, WhatsApp groups or, even worse, Twitter provide a more immediate outlet and can be more effective. The Leader, of course, isn’t going to be checking WhatsApps or even managing their own Twitter account.
The problem was already apparent under David Cameron. It has become more acute still under Theresa May. Our next Leader must sit down with Sir Graham Brady and find a new way forward to make him- or herself more accountable and to provide the leadership that our Parliamentary Party so richly deserves.