A century of the 1922 Committee
At times it has been the most powerful committee in the land. As it approaches its centenary, Andrew Southam explores the history of the 1922 Committee.
It was a peculiarly British transfer of power. When chair of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady delivered a series of pronouncements from the oak-panelled Committee Room 14 in the House of Commons last summer, his words determined the very future of the leadership of this country.
In the 1922 Committee’s most recent intervention in the course of British political history, Brady (who is also chair of The House advisory board) broke the news to Boris Johnson on the Sunday evening of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in early June that enough MPs had issued letters requesting a vote of confidence to trigger a contest. The prime minister’s majority of 211 to 148 in the following day’s vote was insufficient to quell the rebellion for long. Johnson’s mishandling of a scandal involving deputy chief whip Chris Pincher precipitated a flood of ministerial resignations on 5 July that led Brady to follow a convention of previous chairmen in discretely telling their leader the game was up. Johnson announced his decision to resign on 7 July.
While leader Stanley Baldwin proved amenable to meeting the committee in February 1924, this didn’t extend to accepting its validity
The 18-strong executive of the committee of backbench Conservative MPs determine the rules and timing for electing Tory leaders, oversee the process for removing one, and channel backbench sentiment to the party leadership in a process which can affect both policy and ministerial careers. Yet mystery surrounds the committee’s work, as the details of their meetings, votes and the identities of MPs who submit letters of no confidence, are shrouded in secrecy.
Sometimes the latent power of the committee can lie dormant for years before suddenly flaring into life. At times, it is perhaps the most powerful body in the land, literally removing power from one individual and bestowing it on another.
So how and why did the ’22, as it is often known, come to play such a role?
Strictly speaking the committee should be called “the ‘23” after the year it was founded as a support group for the cohort of MPs elected exactly 100 years ago next month at the 1922 general election. The group was said to have walked around like rabbits in the headlights with, as one described it, “the complete insignificance of an inexperienced rank and file Member lost in the maze of parliamentary procedure”.
Among them was the affable Lowestoft MP Gervais Rentoul, a frustrated actor turned barrister who had defended Margaret Seddon in a notorious 1912 murder trial which saw her husband hanged for killing a female lodger. Rentoul became the driving force behind an initiative for change, helping to form “the Conservative Private Members (1922) Committee” in April 1923, and becoming its first chair.
Poor general election results in December of that year motivated the committee’s first expression of dissatisfaction to the leadership. Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, whose minority government resigned in January 1924 letting in Labour’s first administration, proved amenable to meeting the committee in February, but this did not extend to accepting its validity. Dismissing the committee’s ideas, he suggested bodies like the ‘22 “had frequently been started in the past but had in the course of time disappeared”. A downhearted member recorded the committee’s disappointment: “Unfortunately, for the moment, the object of the interview has not been achieved.”
By 1926 the committee had opened its doors to every Tory MP bar the shadow cabinet, although the name of “1922” stuck.
The group nearly came unstuck when members sought to move into policy-making with a 1931 Economic Enquiry set up to address Britain’s economic woes. More than 100 members offered their services, with Rentoul organising them into five sub-committees. But enthusiasm overcame good sense when the resulting publication recommended extreme cutbacks in public spending, including abolishing the Ministry of Transport, which failed to attract widespread support.
The Daily Express called the authors “The Economy Bunglers,” and members rushed to disown the study as quickly as they had signed up for it. Rentoul was subsequently unseated by Scottish barrister William Morrison in a bitter contest and became a London magistrate.
Fated not to become a policy body, the ‘22 settled into its role of expressing opinion and facilitating discussion. Irene Ward, who served Wallsend from 1931 to 1945 before representing Tynemouth from 1950 to 1974, and who remains the longest serving Conservative female MP, probably contributed to more committee debates than anyone else. One whip said of her: “I could always tell when Irene was going to make a fuss, because she was wearing a new hat. At times, it seemed that she had an inexhaustible supply of millinery.”
Backbench mistrust of what they perceived as Winston Churchill’s lack of interest in the party and suspicion of Labour’s politicking while serving in a national coalition government strengthened the ‘22 – in 1942, the executive resisted an attempt by Churchill to deny them access to cabinet ministers. The following year, former minister Colonel Oliver Stanley successfully argued for the Committee to admit front benchers, a practice which continued until 1945.
One question dominated the Conservative Party in the wake of prime minister Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez debacle in 1956: “Is it Rab or is it Harold?” Chancellor Harold Macmillan and leader of the Commons Rab Butler vied for favour with the ’22 to become Eden’s prospective successor. One November meeting passed into party folklore, with a whip recalling: “Rab was not on his best form, whereas Harold was at his most ebullient and managed to win the day, not only on the merit of what he said... but also physically in that his expansive gestures nearly caused poor Rab to fall backwards from the adjacent seat.”
But while the views of the ’22 were important, at this stage there were still no leadership contests, with leaders “emerging” from discussions of the serving cabinet or shadow cabinet.
This changed in 1963 when the by-now prime minister Macmillan sent in a sick note. He feared his prostate trouble, for which he was being operated on during the party conference that October, was terminal. The Queen attended his hospital bed to accept his resignation.
Conference, held that year in Blackpool, unexpectedly became an American-style convention, with Viscount Hailsham (Quintin Hogg) renouncing his peerage to stand; his supporters campaigned with oversized “Q” lapel badges. Butler again threw his hat into the ring, as did chancellor of the exchequer Reginald Maudling.
Their hopes were dashed however by the ‘22. Chair John Morrison had already told Butler that “the chaps won’t have you”. He went on to advise foreign secretary Lord Home that party unity might require him to stand, and Maudling that the prize lay within his grasp.
Maudling, however, blew his chance with a conference speech about which The Times said “The clapping started slowly, grew to a moderate volume, and there it stuck.”
Executive members of the ‘22 decamped to the bar of the nearby Bona Vista hotel, an unexpected visiting coach party forcing them out of the lounge, where they decided to support Home over Hailsham.
The new (and newly hyphenated) prime minister Alec Douglas-Home met the ’22 for the first time as leader on 14 November 1963 as neither MP nor peer, having renounced his peerage and awaiting a by-election. He lost the following year’s general election to Harold Wilson; Macmillan went on to enjoy a long life, passing away 23 years later.
The ‘22’s role deciding the fate of aspiring leaders was formalised in 1965 when the committee wrested control of the process; the resulting contest produced the accomplished amateur sailor and conductor Edward Heath as leader.
But what the ‘22 did, they could undo. Ten years later the committee secretly plotted to oust Heath when he reneged on assurances to stand down if the Tories lost the general election of October 1974.
Committee chairman Edward du Cann, a financier whose company started the “unit trust” phenomenon, wielded the knife against the leader who’d sacked him as party chairman in 1967, possibly motivated by hopes of running himself.
Executive members gathered at du Cann’s Lord North Street home one October morning to agree Heath must go.
Heath responded to du Cann’s message by saying the committee’s members only represented themselves, so the ‘22 reassembled at du Cann’s Milk Street company offices where they decided to force Heath into a leadership contest.
Until then, sitting leaders had been protected from challenge, but the ’22 decided a new voting system was needed: details of their meeting leaked, earning them the moniker “Milk Street Mafia”.
Caving into the pressure from the ’22, Heath agreed to fight under new rules (drawn up by Douglas-Home) without realising his followers had overestimated his backing among MPs.
Du Cann, sensing he didn’t have enough support to stand himself, decided on the “adventurous” second choice of then-education secretary Margaret Thatcher. Teller Sir Timothy Kitson rushed into Heath’s Commons’ room on 4 February 1975 saying, “I am sorry, Ted, but it’s all up”.
Following Heath’s withdrawal, Thatcher easily saw off William Whitelaw, Geoffrey Howe, Jim Prior and John Peyton in a second ballot.
But the rule changes which heralded the Thatcher era were to prove her undoing in 1990. She withdrew from the second ballot when failing to win an outright majority in the first round against Michael Heseltine’s challenge.
Some of the ‘22’s powers were relinquished when the final say over the choice of candidates to become a Conservative leader was handed over to party members in 1998 (they now choose from a shortlist of two, decided in successive rounds of voting by Tory MPs). However, that same reform empowered the committee with the vote of confidence process, which later hamstrung Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and, most recently, Boris Johnson.
When at the 2003 Conservative conference Duncan Smith referred to himself as the “quiet man… turning up the volume” – a reference to John Wayne’s character in The Quiet Man – plotters decided he must go. He dared them to “put up or shut up” which they duly did; it was left to ’22 chair Michael Spicer to tell him a vote would be held by the end of the month. Duncan Smith remains the only Conservative leader to lose a confidence vote.
Elected leader in 2005, then prime minister David Cameron said he wasn’t “picking a fight” with the ‘22 while doing just that in 2010, winning a last-minute proposal for ministers and even the leader to attend meetings.
The change didn’t have the desired result, however, as the ‘22 continued to deny frontbenchers voting rights over the committee’s executive. Two days later, backbenchers elected as chair Graham Brady – who had resigned from Cameron’s frontbench in 2007 in a row over grammar schools.
Theresa May expressed a desire before becoming a minister to abolish the “archaic” committee – and probably subsequently regretted not having an opportunity to do so. Her apology for poor 2017 general election results won her only a temporary reprieve; a confidence vote came the following year, which she won unconvincingly, in theory shielding her from challenge for 12 months. When her Brexit deal failed six months later, it fell to Brady to tell her the game was up, and that the executive would vote to change the rules to allow an immediate challenge unless she departed of her own accord.
Brady was again at the helm both when Johnson came to power and during the interminable process to elect his successor last summer.
Having seen off 10 other candidates, Liz Truss was duly elected leader on 5 September. As she faces her first conference as leader, she will be wise to keep an eye on the machinations within her own party, amid rumours that MPs disgruntled by her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s so-called “mini-budget” have already begun submitting letters of no confidence.
To survive she will need take heed of the lesson which stands out from history for any Conservative leader: beware the ‘22!
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