By Paul Goodman
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The Times (£) today treats the forthcoming elections for the 1922 Committee as a battle between left and right.
However, Kris Hopkins is quoted in the story as saying that “This is not about right and left, it’s about the stagnation of the ’22. It’s stifling debate.”
So who is right?
Hopkins is right in that many Conservative MPs believe that the style of the '22 – in particular its weekly meetings – has failed to evolve since the days of Randolph Churchill. This view spreads well beyond the confines of the 2010 intake of which Hopkins is a member. Many members of the 2005 intake – which was far more close-knit in the last Parliament than the 2001 intake was in the one before – saw the '22 as antiquated and creaky.
The weekly meeting may have changed since I left the Commons two years ago, but a striking feature of its proceedings was that questioners addressed the speaker of the week through the Chairman (Sir Michael Spicer). The effect was rather like that of trying to contact a departed loved one – which with regard to a few of the speakers was almost literally the case – through a medium at a slightly declasse seance.
An example might run as follows:
CONSERVATIVE BACKBENCHER: Sir Michael, could I ask Mr Gove to use the distinguished intellectual powers at his disposal to explain further his doubtless correct conclusion that a school should be allowed to select pupils on all means available to it other than academic ability?
(Translation: Gove is a posturing ninny who hasn't the guts to bring back grammar schools.)
MICHAEL GOVE: Sir Michael, I am grateful to Mr Blenkinsop for his question. He will be aware that the Education team is keeping this question under constant review in its unsleeping drive to raise levels of academic attainment in all parts of our society.
(Translation: Blenkinsop is too stupid to grasp the purpose of my academy and free school plans.)
However, the Times is right in that there's more at stake than the '22 addressing "issues important to voters, such as welfare, housing and inner cities, and to speak more clearly to carers, public sector workers and ethnic minorities". The paper quotes George Hollingberry as saying this and it suggests, given the context of the piece, that the quote applies to the '22. Hollingberry won a by-election to its executive recently and I tweeted the news at the time.
The Times treats Hollingberry's win as a party left-right tussle: "Mr Hollingbery ran as an agent of change, while [Chris] Kelly enjoyed the support of the Right," it writes. The contest won't have been so straightforward, since personal factors (networks of friends, favours owed) matter a lot in these contests. But the paper is undoubtedly on to something, and has written about the 301 Group before.
As I pointed out at the time, there has been a steady stream of media stories about attempts to form new groups of MPs more closely aligned to the leadership than many members of the '22 Executive. Last year, Michael Crick reported the formation of a new 2020 Group was reported, which seemed to be a revived Green Chips group. Crick wrote that the group aims "to help David Cameron in his struggles with the Right of the Parliamentary party".
The Prime Minister is also taking an interest in the work of the Forty, and it's worth noting that Hopkins hosted the launch of TRG North. I suspect that the pitch of left-of-party-centre backbenchers in the forthcoming elections will be: "The '22 must wake up and meet the real world", and that of their right-of-part-centre rivals will be: "The '22 must stay independent of the leadership" (or, less subtly: "Don't let Cameroon's stooges wreck the '22.")
The most tempting targets for the centre-left will surely be those '22 officers who have been especially critical of the powers-that-be. Brian Binley, the Committee's Treasurer, said recently that the Prime Minister should stop "leaving the impression that his agenda is determined by the imprint of the last Liberal Democrat who sat on him". Mark Pritchard, one of its secretaries, said on the floor of the Commons that he had been threatened by the Prime Minister's office.
I cheerfully admit to having no evidence whatsoever, but wouldn't be surprised if as Tim indicates both are challenged when the '22 elections take at the beginning of the new Parliamentary session this spring.
12.45pm Update Unhappiness with the '22 reaches back further than 2005. I'm reminded that after Labour's 1997 election landslide backbenchers met weekly on Mondays to discuss the coming week's business – in a deliberate attempt to plan more actively than the '22's proceedings would allow. The Party leader and the Chief Whip were among those who chaired this alternative forum.