Friday, 21 May 2010

The power of 1922

It's often said that, due to the UK's wonderfully bizarre unwritten constitution, it's a lot easier to remove a Conservative Prime Minister from power than it is to remove a Labour Prime Minister. There are mechanisms for removing a Labour PM, but they're convoluted and, more than that, Labour MPs tend to be unwilling to use such mechanisms. This is not true of Conservative MPs who have a belligerent tendency, not to mention the fact that they can remove their leader with a very straightforward mechanism which rests in the infamous 1922 Committee.

The committee was actually formed in 1923 but was named after the year in which its founders were elected. However, when Conservatives hear '1922', they don't think of the general election which took place in that year, they think of something far more dramatic.

On Thursday 19 October 1922 Conservative MPs gathered at the Carlton Club in London to discuss the coalition government which consisted of Conservatives and Liberals. Does this sound familiar? The difference between that coalition government and the current one is the Prime Minister in the 1922 coalition was a Liberal (David Lloyd George), despite the fact that the Conservatives were the largest party in the Commons.

Austen Chamberlain, the leader of the Conservative party and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lloyd George, strongly supported the continuation of the coalition as did most of the leadership of the party. But many of the ordinary Conservatives MPs did not like linking themselves to an unpopular Liberal Prime Minister. So on that day in October 1922, there was a vote of the members present at the Carlton Club, effectively on whether to remain in the coalition or not. The party leadership lost the vote, 187 to 87, and as a result Chamberlain resigned as leader, the coalition collapsed, an election was called and the Conservatives won a majority in the Commons. Ever since, '1922' has been shorthand for the devastating power of ordinary MPs when they become sufficiently disgruntled.

The new Conservative MPs who entered Parliament in the 1922 election formed a committee of backbench MPs – the 1922 Committee – which continues to this day and is far more powerful than equivalent groups in any other mainstream party. For example, an immediate vote of confidence in the leader of the Conservative party can be called if just 15% of MPs write to the 22's chairman asking for one, and Conservatives are not timid about using this power either. It was most recently used less than seven years ago to forcibly remove Iain Duncan Smith from the leadership.

Perhaps this is why yesterday David Cameron changed the rules of membership of the 1922 Committee. Previously, only Conservative MPs who were not part of the government were allowed to be members of the 22. At the Prime Minister's request, this rule has been changed and now all Conservative MPs are allowed to join. This is significant as members of the government are far less likely to vote against their Prime Minister in any vote of confidence. The 22 has other powers, such as overseeing elections within the Conservative party, including the selection of Conservative chairpersons of Parliamentary committees, which can now be influenced by the government.

Interestingly, the vote to change the rules wasn't that close - 168 supported the change, 118 were opposed. Of course, when you consider the fact that there are 147 new Conservative MPs, it is not too surprising as they wouldn't want to upset the leader who has just brought them into Parliament, but many of the older Conservative MPs were very angry at this change.

David Cameron should perhaps be careful; even after these changes, the 1922 Committee is still extremely powerful and past experience shows Conservatives are not coy about using their power.

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