When we first wrote about the election for Chairman of the ’22 Executive, Graham Brady’s declared opponent was Robert Goodwill – although we warned that a third contender might come along: “don’t rule out more twists and turns”.
They happened. Heather Wheeler declared; Goodwill then withdrew (in Wheeler’s favour). And earlier today, Brady was returned, in a vote that has been described by as “close”.
Social distancing in the Commons chamber, and in the Palace of Westminster, made this election hard to call. The result will be looked at through different lenses.
One is generational: as we pointed out earlier this week, the entire 107-strong 2019 intake was entitled to vote. There is no evidence that, when push came to shove, it swung behind Wheeler – not yet, anyway.
Another is factional: but both candidates were broadly of the right of the party (which is why the ’92 Group didn’t declare). Left and right, in this case, only tells one so much.
Attitudes to the leadership will have been more telling. Our view is that “at the heart of this election will be [Tory MPs’] view of Johnson, and there’s no reason to revise that view.
“Do they think he should be kept under public restraint, like one of those handcuffed suspects one sees hauled off in photos featuring Priti Patel?”
“Or do they believe he should be allowed to run wild through Alpine-type meadows, in the spirit of Julie Andrews during the opening of The Sound of Music?”
So we put it – and that was before the Party’s by-election defeats in Chesham & Amersham and Batley & Spen. Those results will have further disturbed the febrile mood of Conservative backbenchers.
Brady is a serial rebel: variously over time, over EU policy, a badger cull, HS2, tobacco packaging, various pieces of constitution and parliament-related business and, not least, grammar schools.
So whatever their intentions may have been, Tory MPs have re-elected the candidate usually described, fairly or unfairly, as the more rebellious of the two candidates.
Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Sir Graham has been the leader of he unofficial internal opposition over Covid – and that this election is a specific shot across the Government’s bows over pandemic policy.
If Downing Street indeed pushed quietly for Wheeler, this is the second time that Sir Graham has seen it off. First came the events of 2011, in which David Cameron’s attempt to merge the ’22 with the frontbench were defeated.
Brady won the subsequent election to chair the ’22 for the first time. Eleven long years later, he’s still there. Association with what the front bench wants is fatal in a backbench election.