Once again, the powerful backbench Conservative 1922 committee is back in the headlines. Here Dr Emma Peplow, head of our Oral History Project, shares some of former MPs’ memories of its workings and influence…
Whilst the 1922 Committee comes to public attention only at times of political drama, for the former Conservative MPs interviewed for our oral history project, it was a central part of party organisation and their daily lives. Described by Edward du Cann, 1922 Chair for 12 years, as the forum to ‘represent the backbenchers, it’s there to put forward their point of view’, it also has a very practical side: to share upcoming parliamentary business, and instruct MPs which way to vote. According to Adrian Flook the weekly meetings were ‘the earliest point’ you could find out what was happening, and allow you to plan your time.
Most described the meetings as important, or at times dramatic: in Matthew Carrington’s words they were ‘always great fun, particularly when there was a row going on.’ Others found them disappointing. Angela Browning found the atmosphere ‘all rather artificial’ and the goal ‘to get that meeting finished in short order.’ Whether the weekly meetings were interesting or not, the 1922 committee was the forum for ministers to raise policies with backbenchers, and try to convince colleagues to back particular policies. The Prime Minister would address the final meeting of every parliamentary session, an occasion Dudley Fishburn, elected in a by-election only six days earlier, remembered well:
The committee was powerful enough to demand ministers attend to explain the reasoning behind controversial policies. Richard Luce, Minister of State in the Foreign Office at the time of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, remembered that the ‘mauling’ Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington got at the 1922 as one of the factors that led to his resignation. Lord Naseby, later Deputy Speaker, told us he always sat in the same seat in these meetings, as he had developed a reputation for asking questions, ‘sometimes friendly, not always,’ and wanted the chair to know where he was.
The executive, known sometimes as the ‘men in grey suits’ were respected in the party as ‘very formidable figures’ in the words of Patrick Jenkin. They were not always men of course – in our archive both Elizabeth Peacock and Marion Roe served on the executive, Roe as Secretary and Vice-Chair. All those who were elected were honoured by the fact, as Fred Silvester remembered, it was ‘a very personal’ vote.
The 1922 executive acted as bridge between backbenchers and party leadership, mostly through regular meetings with ministers and the Prime Minister. Sir John Hannam here describes how this worked:
Elizabeth Peacock described a similar arrangement with Margaret Thatcher, normally held at a working lunch. The trick, she told us, was to make your point when Thatcher was eating, as that was the time she would stop talking!
Despite Sir John Hannam’s reservations about the committee’s influence, there were points when they held the future of the Prime Minister in their hands. Hannam told us that their involvement was a way of communicating to the leadership that all was not well, and when this happened this message was also understood by the media. We have memories in our archive of three occasions where the Conservative leadership was challenged: the removal of Ted Heath in 1975, of Thatcher in 1990, and John Major’s resignation as party leader in 1995. In all these cases the responsibility of organising leadership elections fell to the 1922 committee.
These periods were remembered as very exciting, but also full of party division and personal difficulties. Thomas Stuttaford, for example, remembered being told between the elections of 1974 that Heath had assured the 1922 committee that he would stand down if he lost the second election. When he did not do so, moves were made to officially challenge him. Edward du Cann remembered having to tell him this was the case: an ‘outstanding’ example of the committee’s ‘power and authority.’ Many others remembered Thatcher’s fall. Sir John Hannam described problems arising from 1989, after Thatcher failed to announce an intention to retire at the ten year celebration of her premiership: ‘we knew there would be trouble afoot.’ Matthew Carrington, a long-time supporter who did not want her to resign, nonetheless agreed that there was a feeling in the party that ‘she was getting a bit shrill’ and that ten years was long enough. He explained that party divisions at this time were a complicated mix of policy, emotional and personal differences.
For Terence Higgins, the splits that emerged in the early 1990s over Europe continued throughout John Major’s premiership and affected the 1922 committee itself. The party was ‘bedevilled’ by these divisions, in his words, and despite the 1922 executive’s efforts to calm the Eurosceptic wing of the party they were not able to persuade them to stop opposing Major. Lady Olga Maitland remembers the vote in 1995 after Major resigned as leader telling his critics to ‘put up or shut up’:
Major’s victory briefly unified the party, only for them to face a landslide defeat in the 1997 election. The power of the 1922 Committee, as remembered in our archive, can be limited when there are deep divisions in the Conservative party. Yet when the backbenches unite, the 1922 can bring down the government.
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