As David Cameron never forgets to remind us, when he eventually bargained his way into the top job at Number Ten, he was confronted with a block of problems so huge and urgent that only someone of his unique analytical and curative powers could be relied on to demolish it. Especially demanding was the matter of the arrangement that had smoothed his way to success – the coalition agreement with Nick Clegg and his floundering Liberal Democrats. How would MPs of both parties view the adjustments, the compromises and the back-tracking which the agreement demanded of them? Pondering on these matters, Cameron would have had to think about the 1922 Committee – a kind of parliamentary shop-stewards organisation which allowed backbench MPs to express their opinions about, and thereby influence, government policy. There was reason for him to be uneasy about tackling the 1922 on this issue for the precedents were not encouraging.
The committee arose in October 1922 from a meeting of all Conservative MPs at London’s Carlton Club, whose interior was not intimately known to the millions who had voted in the 1918 coupon election for the wartime coalition of Conservatives and Lloyd George’s Liberals. But the stresses of struggling to control the capitalist system, rampant in its chaos after World War One, had forced division between the two parties. The Cabinet hoped that the meeting would bring about what they regarded as unity, but Stanley Baldwin announced that if the Coalition contested an election he would stand as an Independent Conservative. Without actually naming Lloyd George as his principal rival in the leadership stakes, he elaborated that the “Welsh goat” (a nickname in salute to his extravagant sexual activity) was also “a dynamic force” and that such a thing could be “a terrible thing” for its destructive qualities – in the case of the Liberal Party, for example. After a succession of speakers revealed that their experience of political power had not qualified them as any less confused and irrelevant, the meeting voted firmly to fight the coming election as an independent party with its own leader and programme. Lloyd George had to resign and soon afterwards Stanley Baldwin led the Conservatives to defeat in the 1923 election. And from that shambles there emerged the 1922 Committee.
It did not take long for the 1922 to equip itself, like any bunch of effective shop stewards, with a reputation as the bane of the leadership – which, if not strictly accurate, was not unwelcome to them. There is the case of Iain Duncan Smith (known as IDS) who was the Tory party leader between September 2001 and October 2003 in succession to the blundering William Hague. IDS quickly showed himself to be cruelly out of his depth in so demanding a job and he was not helped when a TV programme in 2002 revealed that he had not been as truthful as an aspiring leader should be in his account of his higher education. His call for the party to unite behind him was blatantly at variance with his own record of persistently opposing Prime Minister John Major (who described him as one of a set of “bastards”). Early in 2003 there was a campaign to remove him, and the 1922 became the rallying point to receive the necessary written demands for a vote of no confidence in him. IDS resisted to the bitter end but the Tory party moved on to the equally disastrous leadership of Michael Howard. As a final irony IDS has taken to informing us that after all the politicians’ blathering about abolishing poverty, it still disfigures the country and also (as an ex-officer) to advocating the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan to fight an indefinite war in Iraq.
When Cameron became Prime Minister he quickly made it clear that one of his priorities was to deal with (i.e. to control) the 1922. In May 2010, before he had even announced the terms of the coalition agreement with the Lib-Dems, he tried to impose a change of the 1922 rules which would have allowed front benchers – ministers and the like – to become members. This was met with emphatic refusal. A “senior MP” described the proposal as " . . . a stitch-up the Mafia would be proud of” while Margaret Thatcher’s ex-hatchet man Lord Tebbitt raged that it was “ . . . quite disgraceful, totally improper . . .”. But this was new life for the Tories, back in power after 13 years in the wilderness; the changes were agreed except that the ministers would not be able vote for the 1922 officers or executive committee. Cameron’s case for the changes was partly that the committee was under the control of some MPs who, even by the standards of Westminster, could be seen as eccentric. In April this year, the 301 group, who aim to reform 1922 out of all recognition, condemned them as “a group of mostly cantankerous old farts who do little to further right-wing ideas”. (Although, on the subject of eccentricity, it should be noted that a prominent member of the 301 group, Priti Patel, is in favour of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime and was unwise enough to insist on the point even after evidence that an innocent person had recently been executed).
Is there anything to be learned from considering the parallels between the events that took place when the 1922 Committee was formed and those of this year when the Tory leader planned effectively to abolish it? The original assumption was that as backbench, run-of-the-mill, salt-of-the-earth MPs are elected by popular vote, their voice should be heard and responded to as the Will of the People. There would be more force in that argument if The People always spoke up in the interests of a humane society. But that is too rarely heard – and if it is heard it is disregarded as fantastic. So what we are assumed to accept as normal life – the arrangement whereby one class exploits and dominates the other – runs on and on. It was ninety years ago when Baldwin and Lloyd George clashed, but in any fundamental sense nothing has changed.