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David Cameron moved wisely but late to climb down over the '22 elections

It was hard not to read Jonathan's scoop last night as anything other than the Prime Minister beating the retreat over the 1922 Committee elections. 

The only convincing reason for his extraordinary summoning of the Conservative Parliamentary Party last week was to stop Graham Brady winning the election for the '22 Chairmanship, as I wrote last week here. Whether or not front bench members attend the weekly '22 meetings is a relatively unimportant matter.  It wouldn't have justified an emergency Parliamentary Party meeting or a frantic ballot of dubious legitimacy (which, by the way, seems to have been a shambles: the motion on the ballot paper referred to attendance at '22 meetings, but not to voting in '22 elections - thus obviating the reason for having it in the first place.)

David Cameron will be excoriated in some quarters for getting himself into this mess in the first place.  There will be a great deal of interest in who precisely advised him to declare war on his own Parliamentary Party. ConservativeHome, Charles Moore, Peter Oborne, Martin Ivens - practically the whole Tory family queued up to describe the disaster.  I thought it was notable that Matt D'Ancona, one of the Prime Minister's most creative defenders, didn't choose last weekend to defend the decision in detail here

But I'm struck now less by Cameron's initial folly than by his prudent retreat.  It can be argued, probably rightly, that he had no alternative if he was to stand a chance of restoring trust between himself and his MPs. 

And he will now have an even more awkward relation with Brady, if the latter wins, than would have been the case had he not made a big unforced error.  He has also retreated late, a week or so after his original decision, so his move is bound to be seen not only as a climbdown, but as a grudging one at that.

None the less, knowing when to beat the retreat is an indispensable quality in a leader. And since the Prime Minister has reached the right conclusion, the best course that his critics can take is to accept the concession with good grace. 

In the last resort - and nearly always in the first, too - David Cameron is a past master at keeping his head, one of his many admirable qualities (yes: he has lots).  But the wisest course that he can now take is to stop listening to those who are obsessed with fighting his own MPs rather than the Party's opponents.

Paul Goodman


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