spiceIt may be that Lindsay Hoyle calls Graham Brady’s amendment during today’s debate on the Coronavirus Act. If he does, the Government will make concessions; if he doesn’t, it will doubtless make some, but fewer than otherwise – because it will be under less pressure to do so in the absence of a vote.
Either way, the 1922 Committee Chairman will step out of the headlines and into the shadows, at least for a while but, before he does so, it’s worth reflecting on how ominous it is to see internal opposition to the Government being led by a ’22 Chairman.
The five who preceded Brady were: Michael Spicer, Archie Hamilton, Marcus Fox, Cranley Oslow and Edward Du Cann. The last stands out as having had ambitions of his own – he was tipped at one point to succeed Edward Heath as Party leader – but otherwise the names have a certain flavour.
None habitually stepped forward into the public spotlight, and most were quietly supportive of the Conservative leader of the day, seeing this as part of their function. It would be wrong to say that Brady is unsupportive of Boris Johnson, but a change in the relationship between the leadership and the ’22 has gradually been taking place.
Brady’s is the world of colleagues, consultations, courtesy, the Party Board, understatement, experience, due process and long, slow marination in the culture of the Party over many years.
The Prime Minister has been a feature of public life for a long time too, first entering the Commons almost 20 years ago. But he is a very different animal.
His is the world of Have I Got News For You, writing books, the Spectator, leaving Parliament altogether for a period and the Daily Telegraph, not necessarily in that order. He was a celebrity before entering the Commons – which is rare among MPs, though certainly not unique.
Unlike many fellow Conservative MPs, he didn’t come up through the ranks, as a local activist or councillor. (“Almost half of the Class of 2019 had fought at least one general election before, and almost as many had served as councillors or mayors,” Henry Hill writes in his study of the new intake.
This would matter less were Johnson a “House of Commons man”, as the saying goes. As a performer at the Despatch Box, he has learned much and is now strong, though uneven – and sometimes very powerful, as so often before last year’s general election.
None the less, the platform, where he can orate to a crowd from a podium, not the Chamber, where he must convere with other MPs as equals, is where he’s most at home. He was never at ease speaking from the backbenches.
He will also now be across the names and backgrounds of lots of his colleagues, but though gregarious he is also a loner – not remotely a Gavin Williamson, say, when it comes to knowing who they are, and keeping abreast of what they’re up to.
Furthermore, he’s not a details man either – as yesterday’s cock-up over the lockdown rules in the North-East reminds us. This doesn’t mean he can’t master them: indeed, Ministers report that he will sometimes phone them and probe them, pushing and prodding away at a problem until he feels he’s got to the heart of it.
But you get the picture. On the one hand, you have something like a club. On the other, someone who’s never quite been part of it.
Tension between Tory leaders and backbenchers is as old as the hills, or older. That Johnson is at odds with some of them, given the challenge of a pandemic, is in some ways not remotely surprising.
Nor is he the first leader with whom Brady and the ’22 has had a tense relationship. The Coalition was a testing time for Conservative MPs, because they were sharing government with another party. So the back-and-forth between Brady and David Cameron was sometimes strained.
That the early Cameron period followed the Tony Blair playbook with the leadership prepared, if not actually eager, to pick fights with its own core supporters didn’t exactly help – especially once the transition had been made from oppostion to government.
It may be significant that the biggest and most internally fractious of those confrontations, in opposition, was over grammar schools. Brady resigned from Camerons’ front bench in consequence. So the trail of events that has led to today’s debate is a long one.
The essence of it was summed up by Charles Walker, one of the ’22’s Vice-Chairmen, during a recent Commons debate on the UK Internal Market Bill. “If you keep whacking a dog, don’t be surprised when it bites you back,” he said.
Walker has become over a bit of a shop steward for Tory MPs, representing their interests and concerns to the leadership. He doesn’t speak for all of them, but for some of the more experienced ones, especially, his words will have struck a chord.
Many of them are sensitive to the gradual decline in the status that came with serving as an MP until fairly recently – see in passing the expenses scandal; media pressure on families; the fall in party membership figures over time; the rise of Twitter and Facebook; the squeeze on outside interests and faster Conservative MP turnover in safer seats.
That last has been high among Tory women MPs compared to their proportion of the whole; meanwhile, there is an undercurrent of complaint among some male Tory MPs of their promotion chances being lessened by the determination of successive leaderships to appoint more women Ministers.
A Conservative Prime Minister can take on his Party’s left or his right from time to time. But he can’t take on a coalition of both at the same time – especially when it’s backed by the ’22, or senior ex-Ministers in numbers, or both. We close with two examples.
First, Huawei. The 38 Tory MPs who rebelled over its 5G role during the Telecommunications Bill included: Damian Green, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Liam Fox, Owen Paterson, Tom Tugendhat and Bob Neill. That’s five former Cabinet Ministers and two senior Select Committee chairmen. (Plus Brady, by the way.)
That’s also a spread of opinion which spans the Parliamentary Party. Next, there’s the Brady amendment itself. Green, Duncan Smith, Tugendhat and Neill have signed it too, as have other backbenchers ranging, in terms of Party opinion, from John Redwood to Richard Fuller; from Esther McVey to George Freeman.
As David Gauke wrote last Saturday, the Prime Minister could find himself at odds with his right, as the weeks pass, on both the Coronavirus and Brexit. But the biggest management challenge to him doesn’t spring from Government policy, but from Parliamentary culture – and dogs that no longer bark only, but bite too.