Heather Wheeler: The Conservatives have changed, and the ’22 needs to change too. That’s why I’m standing to be its Chair.

9 Jun

Heather Wheeler is the MP for South Derbyshire and running to be Chairman of the 1922 Committee.

The make-up of the Parliamentary Conservative Party has changed a great deal since I was first elected back in 2010. The political landscape and the values of the party have changed too and this is why I have decided to put my name forward as Chair of the 1922 Committee.

Back in 2010, we had 305 MPs and the election map showed a clear North-South divide with a liberal smattering of orange around the shires.

Fast forward to today and there are no fewer than 364 Conservative MPs and the election map shows a sea of blue up and down the country.

Those orange patches are so small they are almost impossible to spot these days and even the red ones are largely confined to the cities. Whole swathes of the Midlands (my patch) and the North have been won over by a combination of Conservative values and a promise to respect their vote and “Get Brexit Done”.

The demographics are different these days too. Back in 2010, there were 49 women Conservative MPs, today there are 87. In the interim period, we have also elected our second female leader and the country’s second female Prime Minister too.

However, the Parliamentary Party is still yet to elect a female chair of the 1922 Committee; a fact that I was actually unaware of until a colleague pointed it out to me after I announced my candidacy.

I obviously hope that my colleagues vote to change that in the upcoming 1922 elections. But I don’t believe in tokenism and hope to secure their votes as a result of my abilities and experience rather than my gender.

With the Labour Party beset by persistent ideological infighting and a toxic obsession with wokery, issues almost all voters I speak with have no time for, this shifting landscape looks set to continue.

Strong Conservative policies such as the Government’s levelling up agenda are already bearing fruit and there is a real chance that if we remain on the right track, the so-called “Red Wall” seats could and should become permanently blue.

Down here in Westminster we have been blessed with an exciting new generation of Conservative MPs who, like me, represent constituencies steeped in manufacturing and agriculture.

Our party is blessed with talent, MPs like Jane Hunt from Loughborough who has successfully held a University seat, John Lamont MP from Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk who has fought off the SNP, and Craig Williams MP from Montgomeryshire who has bounced back from losing a previous seat to secure a strong majority in a traditionally liberal Welsh seat.

These MPs and the many more like them are the future of our party and it is imperative that we do everything we can to keep them here in Westminster, working hard for their constituents, for as long as possible.

This is even more important with the process of the boundary changes officially starting from Tuesday June 8. We will have a huge task negotiating on behalf of sitting MPs who, through no fault of their own, may find themselves seatless.

The 1922 Committee has a key role to play in delivering that.

The ‘22 needs to act as both a conduit between the Parliamentary Party and our ministerial colleagues and a counterbalance to a government with a large majority and a wide-ranging agenda.

The Committee has to ensure that the voice of the backbenches is heard by ministers when it needs to be, whether that is to offer wholehearted support or constructive criticism. Its job is to ensure that this Government does remain on the right track.

The Chair is central to this role. The perfect ‘22 Chair must not be too close to the Government or too strongly opposed to them either.

It is a fine line to tread but one which, as a former minister in Boris Johnson’s Government and an independent-minded backbencher who has never been afraid to voice my own views and those of my constituents, I believe I am ideally placed to deliver.

Sir Graham Brady has shown some distinguished leadership during his time as Chair. But having held the role for 11 years, he is already the second longest-serving ’22 Chair after Edward du Cann.

The Party has changed, the political landscape has changed, and I believe it is time for the leadership of the 1922 Committee to change too. I know that many colleagues who have already offered me their support share this view.

It is time for the ‘22 to be revitalised to reflect the modern Conservative Party, to keep Government policies moving in the right direction, and to defend the values that everyone connected to the Conservative Party holds dear.

I believe I am the right person to deliver a renewed 1922 Committee that can serve the best interests of the Parliamentary Party, our grassroots members, and our voters up and down the country.

Most importantly of all, as Chair of the 1922 Committee, I will strain every sinew to ensure that we take the rights steps to deliver many more years of Conservative Party government.

Brady v Goodwill. The 1922 Chairman election isn’t just about the contenders. At its heart will be Tory MPs’ view of Johnson.

21 May

Graham Brady was always likely to win the election, near the start of this Parliament, for the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee’s Executive.

This was because the intake most eligible to vote was that year’s: the brand new intake of 107 Conservative MPs.  Flung into a new life, eligible vote as backbenchers, and busy with new duties, most will not have given the contest much thought.

Offered a choice between a candidate who had previously chaired the committee and one who had not, many will reflexively have plumped for the former.  It will be different this time round.

In a few weeks, Brady is set to face Robert Goodwill in a ballot for the chairmanship.  The distinctions between them are arguably ones of degree: both are men, both experienced Parliamentarians, and both northerners.

Michael Gove, in the mischievous spirit that sometimes possesses him, once floated a Wars of the Roses leadership contest between Damian Hinds (Lancashire) and Gavin Williamson (Yorkshire).

You want such an election?  Here is one. Goodwill sits for Scarborough and Brady for Altincham & Sale: both are natives of their counties.  Hath not thy rose a canker, Brady?  Hath not thy rose a thorn, Goodwill?

Above all, neither are exactly founder members of the Boris Johnson fan club.  Brady has not been appointed a Minister by Johnson.  Goodwill was actually sacked as one.

For all that, this contest will be an important one for the Conservative Party, given the Prime Minister’s habit of veering from disaster to triumph, or sometimes the other way round, and Tory backbenchers’ one of lurching between complacency and panic.

And despite the distance between both men and Johnson, each would be likely to handle him, and the post itself, differently.  Brady is a break from convention.  Goodwill would be a return to it (at least, if what his friends say is right).

The former’s recent predecessors were Michael Spicer, Archie Hamilton, Marcus Fox and Cranley Onslow.  All were essentially loyalists (though Fox’s patience with the party leadership was tested by the Maastricht row).

The point about Brady is that behind his smooth front are steely views, strongly held – for example, on grammar schools, over which he resigned as Shadow Minister for Europe when David Cameron’s Conservatives were in opposition.

Once they were in government, he rebelled not only over EU policy, but against a badger cull, HS2, tobacco packaging, and various pieces of constitution and parliament-related business.

The change from Cameron to May brought no change: indeed, Brady was instrumental in the stately manoeuvering that forced her out of office.

Nor did that from May to Johnson.  If anything, he has become rebel-in-chief, for the simple reason that there’s only been one political game in town during the past year or so: Covid.  And Brady has been a public critic of lockdowns.

Goodwill has a different flavour.  It would not be quite right to say that he has smooth views behind a steely front.  But he is a former Chief Whip (of the party’s former group of MEPs), and iron tends to enter the soul of those who do that job, in any form.

He was also a Jeremy Hunt voter – which may help to explain why he was purged, given the Prime Minister’s long memory for political slights.

Add that to his support for Remain during the EU referendum campaign (Brady was a Leaver), and it is tempting to pigeon-hole him on the centre-left of the party, facing an opponent on its centre-right or, more straightforwardly, its right.

But pause there for a moment.  In 2005, Goodwill plumped not for David Cameron, or even Ken Clarke, in that year’s party leadership contest.  He supported the most right-wing of the candidates, Liam Fox.

And Brady has some unexpected views.  When it comes to the constitution, most Conservatives are, well, conservative.  But he wants “radical reform – by removing the Executive from Parliament, freeing Parliament from patronage and control of government”.

Some of Brady’s supporters are painting Goodwill as a Johnson stooge, claiming that Downing Street is waist-deep in plots to find a less critical 1922 Committee Chairman.  “Two MPs have already refused the poisoned chalice that Robert has picked up,” one told this site.

Goodwill’s backers counter the charge, pointing out not only that the Prime Minister sacked their man, and that as Transport Minister he dismissed Johnson’s “Boris Island” plan with a flea in its ear, or rather his.

And add that Stanley Johnson was evicted from his Camden home, while Goodwill was in post, in order that HS2 could go through it.  Though there is no suggestion that he might seek to remove the Prime Minister from Downing Street.

“Robert believes that the 1922 executive should be loyal in public but speak the truth in private,” says one of the challenger’s friends.  That sets the election up nicely.

For all the lefty-righty, Leavy-Remainy stuff is ultimately a distraction, or will be treated as such by most Tory backbenchers, at any rate.  At the heart of this election will be their view of Johnson.

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?

If they lean to the former, they will back Brady; if the latter, they will go for Goodwill.  One experienced hand says that “Brady will win easily: backbenchers hate the idea of a Downing Street stooge being foisted on them.”

But a well plugged-in member of the 2019 intake isn’t so sure, claiming that Brady is a remote figure to his intake, and that many of its members want someone less ready to ruffle the Prime Minister’s feathers.

The election is due before the summer recess.  And there it is – unless a third contender comes along.  Or more.  The Parliamentary Party’s centre of gravity isn’t 2005, when Goodwill was elected, let alone 1997, when Brady was.

Most Conservative MPs have been elected since.  Even 2010, the start of the Cameron era in government, seems a bygone age.  Don’t rule out more twists and turns.

Mak is co-Chair of the new Conservative Party Policy Board

24 Nov

ConservativeHome wrote recently about the appointment of Neil O’Brien as a new Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board – a promotion with wider implications.

We weren’t alone in doing so. The news about our columnist got a lot of publicity, including an interview with him in the Times.

But what has not been evident so far is that there was already a Vice-Chairman of the Party responsible for policy.  Step forward, Alan Mak.

That most missed his own earlier appointment isn’t surprising, since these Vice-Chairmen have a way of rapidly coming and going.

At any rate, Mak is still there – and this site is told that he will co-chair the Board with O’Brien.  The third MP who will sit on it is John Penrose, who chairs the Conservative Policy Forum.

Another member will arguably carry more weight than any of them: Munira Mirza, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.

Her presence on it, and that of Joel Winton, her deputy, is a sign that the Board should be taken seriously.  Iain Carter, who heads up the Conservative Research Department, will also be a member.

And there are to be Parliamentary Party representatives – which raises the question of who these are to be.  ConHome is told that the intention is that they be selected. (By whom, exactly?)

We suspect that Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee Executive will have something to say about that.  The ’22 had its own elected policy committees during the run-up to the last election.

Unlike O’Brien, Mak has neither run a think-tank nor served as a SpAd – let alone as a senior one in George Osborne’s Treasury.

Nonetheless, he is no policy slouch: see his pieces on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for this site.  And he was agitating about about ending child hunger almost 18 months ago – well before the Marcus Rashford push.

The twin-hatting arrangement seems awkard to us, and we doubt it will last long.  “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, / Nor can one England brook a double reign, / Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.”

One or other of these gentlemen will presumably be wafted heavenwards in a blaze of glory during the New Year reshuffle that must surely come…

…Unless Boris Johnson has second or third or seventy-seventh thoughts, and puts the whole thing off until after the spring’s local elections.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.