Who better to set the record straight on one of Westminster’s most mythical institutions than a man who has closely watched its workings for the last quarter of a century? We are talking about the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee – a private weekly gathering of backbench MPs which, among other duties, oversees party leadership elections and no confidence votes in the current leadership.
Conservative peer Lord Philip Norton has been able to add an unprecedented recent flurry of activity to his latest book documenting the history of the committee, including no confidence votes in Theresa May and Boris Johnson – both won but resigned within a year – as well as Liz Truss’s resignation as party leader and prime minister just over 12 months ago, before a formal vote of confidence could be triggered.
However, asking the long-serving professor of politics at the University of Hull to speculate on current party leader Rishi Sunak’s chances of staying in that role until the next general election is akin to expecting a kiss-and-tell memoir about his own experiences as a non-voting attendee at the ’22 since becoming a member of the House of Lords in 1998.
Written for students of politics
Instead, The 1922 Committee: Power Behind The Scenes is a forensic academic examination of its work at the heart of the parliamentary Conservative Party written principally for politics students of the future.
As well as charting the committee’s history, it examines its organisation and leadership and its impact within the ranks of the parliamentary party.
“The prime minister or party leader and ministers are not allowed to be members and only attend if invited to speak about a new policy or a matter of urgency.
“David Cameron tried to change that by proposing that ministers should be admitted as members but was defeated and I record the events surrounding that episode in some detail.”
No vote for members of the House of Lords
“Peers like me can attend, but are not members of the committee and cannot vote. Usually, I’m the only peer there, probably because of my professional interest in constitutional matters”, he says.
“Generally, I make a lot of notes and observations and I’ve used a lot of those in writing this book. I thought it would be timely because this year is the centenary of the committee and, particularly because of what has happened in the last five years.
“It was a good way of updating information already out there in the only other book written about the committee, in 1972, to mark its 50th anniversary.”
Debunking the myths
As well as giving a practical insight into its bread-and-butter work, such as the regular in-person scrutiny of ministers, one of the book’s main aims is to debunk some of the colourful myths surrounding the committee, including long-standing confusion over its name.
Legend has it that it was formed at a meeting held in the Carlton Club in October 1922 by backbench Conservative MPs celebrating their part in bringing down David Lloyd George’s coalition government.
“I’m afraid that didn’t happen”, says Lord Norton bluntly. “The committee was actually formed in 1923 as a way of bringing together new backbench MPs who had arrived in Parliament after the General Election in November of the previous year. They were known as the ‘22 intake and the name came from there.
“Probably the other great myth about the committee is its power to hire and fire party leaders at will. The reality is that it oversees a process but the membership can, of course, influence matters.”
Just the facts on the committee’s busiest period
His only reference to the recent revolving door of party leaders is current committee chairman Sir Graham Brady’s statistical record in the role of presiding over four prime ministerial resignations as well as Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation as party leader in 2003.
“He has chaired the committee for 23 years, longer than anyone else in its history and has probably been busier than any of his predecessors.”
As for the infamous ‘men in grey suits’ – a popular reference to the committee’s powerful executive – he is at a loss to come up with a definitive explanation for the phrase.
“I really don’t know where it came from. I can only assume it was a media invention. Perhaps I should have looked into that a bit more.”
The 1922 Committee: Power Behind The Scenes by Lord Philip Norton is published by Manchester University Press.