A host of bogus theories and fantasies have floated around the official position of the 21 MPs who lost the Whip last month. There were claims that prior readoption by their associations protected them (it doesn’t), and there was even excited talk that some would take the Conservative Party to court to overturn the decision or insist on their right to be a Conservative candidate (they haven’t, for the good reason that they would lose).
Not all of the 21 are even interested in regaining a future as Conservative MPs.
Some are off the reservation entirely, and seek careers elsewhere. Sam Gyimah has joined the Liberal Democrats. Rory Stewart has resigned his Tory membership and intends to stand for Mayor of London as an independent.
Some – including Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames, Justine Greening and Oliver Letwin – don’t intend to stand for Parliament again. Letwin’s seat was the first of the 21 to select a successor candidate.
A number of the others, however, would like some sort of route back. Quite how that might technically happen has been a bit of a mystery so far; until now.
I can reveal that there is a formal process buried in the thicket of agreements and addenda which have attached themselves over the years to the Conservative Party’s rules.
After Michael Howard ruthlessly stripped Howard Flight of the Whip in 2005, thereby deselecting him and denying him the right to stand as a Tory in that year’s General Election, the 1922 Committee – rather alarmed by that summary execution – demanded some kind of protection against abuse of such power by the leadership.
They had to wait for a new leader to be elected, so it was in 2006 that David Cameron, Patrick McLoughlin (then Chief Whip) and Sir Michael Spicer (then Chairman of the ’22) put their names to an agreement creating an appeal process for MPs who lose the Whip.
It works like this: within six months of an anticipated General Election, any de-whipped former Conservative MP may request to appeal their status. A panel of three people is then convened, composed of an MP nominated by the Chairman of the ’22, a representative of the voluntary party nominated by the President of the National Convention, and a third person mutually agreed between the ’22, the Convention and the Chief Whip.
The MP then pleads their case – and if successful can regain not the Whip but their membership of the Candidates’ List, ie the right to apply to stand again as a Conservative candidate and re-enter the fold following the ensuing election.
There are a few things to note. First, even for any MP who navigated the panel successfully this arrangement still rightly leaves the final verdict to readopt or not in the hands of their association
Second, there are no specified criteria for judging the MP’s fate. And as the process has so far never been used, there is no case law. In essence it will inevitably be a political decision for the panel, and likely the powers that be. “The MP’s conduct since losing the Whip is likely to feature”, as one person close to the process put it to me.
Third, the particular carrot – regaining the right to stand again, rather than automatic full reinstatement immediately – might lend itself to applying conditions for good behaviour between now and the elusive election. It isn’t hard to imagine a panel effectively binding a supplicant MP over to keep the peace/support Brexit as a requirement for later release from their exile.
I’m told it is expected that at least one of the 21 will seek to exercise this right to appeal, and possibly several will do so. We don’t know yet on what basis their case will be made: continued Hammond-like, defiance on the issue which cost them the Whip in the first place, or an attempt at reconciliation. By the same token, we don’t know yet what attitude the panel will take to them, or what conditions it might apply if it was willing to consider a return. Ultimately, you can bet that it will be a purely political call: does the leadership want them back?