How Sir Graham protected May
The Chairman of the 1922 protected the leader rather than the party
The 1922 Committee represents backbench Conservative MPs to the leader of the party, almost like a trade union for Tory MPs.
But the Committee’s primary job is to protect the interests of the party. They must tell the leader when it’s time to resign, either informally, or when 15% of the party write a letter expressing no confidence in the leader.
It was in this latter role during the premiership of Theresa May that Sir Graham was found wanting.
After the threshold for the number of letters expressing dissatisfaction in the leadership was reached (48), a no confidence vote was held on 12 December 2018 which Theresa May won by 200 votes to 117.
Despite a huge number of backbenchers who wanted her out, the Prime Minister took this technical victory as a green light to pursue her strategy of keeping the UK under EU law and customs policy via the controversial Northern Ireland backstop.
In this climate, members of the 1922 Committee asked to see a copy of their own rule book to see whether it was true, as had been widely reported, that the party leader was safe from challenge for 12 months if they had been successful in a confidence vote.
Astonishingly Sir Graham refused to release to members of the Committee a copy of the rules. Possibly because he had no idea if they were enforceable, or where they had come from in the first place.
But there is another explanation. If Sir Graham had released a copy of the rules, members would have realised the 12-month protection was meaningless, since Rule 3 stated that the Committee was free to change the rules. By preventing access to the rules, the Chairman of the ’22 was protecting Theresa May.
In the face of tanking poll ratings, a certain number of the ’22 sought to remove the 12-month protection afforded to the party leader.
Theresa May’s allies were threatening to sue them if they succeeded and the lack of a rule book left members confused about where they stood. The executive of the ’22 then began debating whether or not they could change their own rules – despite the fact that they had never seen a copy of them.
The Chairman, who did have a copy, claimed not to know the answer and instead sought legal advice on the issue from Alan Mabbutt, the senior CCHQ staffer in charge of talking to Tory party lawyers. Unsurprisingly, getting a legal opinion from an official Tory source took weeks.
Only when two former Chairmen of the 1922 Committee wrote an article stating that the ’22 could change the rules did the myth of safety for the Prime Minister break.
In a joint Sunday Telegraph op-ed Lord Spicer and Lord Hamilton destroyed the idea, put about at the time by Theresa May supporters, that in order to change the rules the whole Conservative Party Constitution must be opened, a Nation Convention called and even that a petition of 10,000 members would be required.
The former Chairmen said this was nonsense and added: “if MPs believe that this rule is an impediment to their proper function and responsibilities for the leadership of their Party it is quite within their right to change these provisions.”
In the article they quoted sections of the rule book – thus proving that somebody else had a copy. This meant that Sir Graham had to accept that Rule 3 meant the ‘22 were free to change their own rules.
Committee members I’ve spoken to accept the Sunday Telegraph article was the game-changer.
A secret ballot was held in April 2019 and the committee split 9-7 against removing the rule. But opposition to the Prime Minister hardened after the loss of 1,300 seats in the local elections.
Another vote was held on changing the rules, the results of which, although sealed, were assumed to have been against the Prime Minister. It is widely accepted that the probability of a rule-change and therefore another vote of confidence by Tory MPs on Theresa May’s leadership hastened her departure.
Without the intervention from the grandees, the myth of the 12-month protection might still be active today. The second no-confidence vote could only have occurred in December 2019. In this counter-factual history we could right now be in the middle of a Conservative leadership election.
At best, Sir Graham exercised a complete lack of leadership and awareness that his role was not to protect a bad leader but protect the party from one. At worst he was a willing stooge of No 10, whose foot dragging protected both Theresa May and her policies. Policies which were so corrosive they took the party to fifth place in a national poll.
Could challenger Bill Wiggin be worse? Perhaps. But it would be hard not to beat the incumbent’s record.
If Sir Graham wouldn’t act against Theresa May after all she’d done to the party, how will he ever stand up to Boris Johnson?