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.