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Is Cameron's '22 move a ploy to swing its election next week?

There's a famous legend that the first three people who speak at the weekly 1922 Committee meeting are mad.  I went to these gatherings fairly regularly during my eight years in the Commons.  I wouldn't like to report whether that hoary old tale is true.  But there's no doubt that recent Conservative leaderships believed it to be.

This is why they made successive attempts to bypass or downplay the '22.  After 1997, during the Parliament before my election, new MPs in particular were encouraged to attend a new weekly session to plan Parliamentary attacks on the New Labour Government.  You may well ask why it couldn't simply have been folded into the weekly '22 meeting.

The answer lies in the Life on Mars culture of the '22 meetings - though a visitor to proceedings, unlike Sam Tyler, would find himself transported back not so much to the '70s as the '50s.  During most weeks, a front bencher addresses the meeting.  Questions to him are sometimes put through the Chairman in a distinctive code - Toryspeak - comprehensible only to Conservative MPs.  (The older ones, at any rate.)

"Sir Michael," one might run.  (The Chairman during the last two Parliaments was Sir Michael Spicer.)  "Can I express one hundred per cent support for the views so cogently expressed at length by Ms Blenkinsop.  Can I also ask her what assessment she has made of the impact of her estimable plan on the future voting intentions of older people?"

Translated into Toryspeak, this means: "Ms Blenkinsop, you're a halfwit, your plan's rubbish, it will offend older voters, lose me my constituency, risk the seats of other colleagues, and stop our candidates winning marginals.  You should be sacked from the Shadow Cabinet, never dare set foot in this building again, and go back to doing, er, whatever it is that you usually do."

The impatience of successive leaderships is thus understandable.  Their various pushes to supplant the '22 were unsuccessful.  I remember, during one such gambit, watching the late, great Eric Forth gesticulating angrily at David Maclean, the then Chief Whip - to whom he'd been as close as a Siamese twin after 1997, when they relentlessly hunted together to harry and hound Labour Ministers.

So you may ask, too, what the problem is with David Cameron's proposal to open up the '22 to the whole Parliamentary Party - particularly since front bench members can speak from the floor in any event.  (Or certainly did so, at any rate, during the last two Parliaments.) To which the answer is: the key point isn't who attends - it's who votes.

Traditionally, the Chairman and Executive of the '22 are elected by backbenchers only.  And those elections are due to take place next week by the usual method.  MPs I've spoken to this evening are concerned not so much by the move - although most want to preserve the '22's independence from the front bench - as by the timing.

Most of them believe that Graham Brady, usually seen as the candidate of the right, is set to win - and that the leadership's sudden move to ensure that the front bench can vote next week can be seen in that light.  Richard Ottoway, the other main candidate for the Chairmanship, questioned the timing during today's meeting, as did Mr Brady himself.

For what it's worth, I agree entirely with Jonathan's post earlier here.  We'll find out the Parliamentary Party's view tomorrow.  The new intake constitutes 49 per cent of it.  How the new men and women vote will therefore be crucial.  They'll have been left in little doubt about how best to please the leadership - whose plan may succeed in the short-term, but risks longer-term damage to backbench independence, morale and trust.

Paul Goodman


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