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.