Amid the chaos in the House of Commons, with newly elected MPs finding their offices and newly appointed ministers being kicked out of them, Graham Brady is the picture of calm. As the only MP to resign on principle from David Cameron’s front bench (over grammar schools), he knew there would be no phone call from Number 10. Yet next week, he may end up being more important than any minister of state. He is favourite for a position that has suddenly started to matter again: chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs.
In the era of Blair-style landslides, the likes and loves of backbench MPs mattered little: the government’s majority was big enough to force through most votes. But the loyalty of Tory MPs to a coalition government is untested. Sitting underneath a framed copy of Baroness Thatcher’s signature, Mr Brady says that the Lib-Con deal has changed everything. ‘A majority government can largely presume the consent of its MPs,’ he says. ‘A coalition government cannot.’ Most Tory MPs, he says, would have preferred minority government.
Relations with Tory MPs was never Mr Cameron’s strong point. The new Prime Minister has taken to walking the House of Commons alone, shaking hands with MPs, in a way he never did before. He used to have Sir Michael Spicer, the former chair of the 1922 Committee, to be his link man with the party — or Andrew MacKay, his backbench spy. Both stood down at the last election. Mr Brady says that, under his chairmanship, the 1922 Committee would rebuild this link.
‘We need to get into the habit of talking to each other again,’ he says — not even pretending that the Cameron leadership talks to the Tory party at present. ‘We need to get into the habit of talking much more fully in advance of decisions being taken. If we are going to make this coalition arrangement work — which is not going to be easy over the five years envisaged — then it will only work if we can really manage the relationships within the party effectively.’
It may not take long for the first test of Mr Cameron’s authority. To ensure the Lib Dems do not rat on him, he proposes a new law requiring that 55 per cent of MPs — rather than a straight majority — should be required to dissolve parliament. To many MPs, this would severely weaken the power of parliament. David Davis has already resolved to vote against the 55 per cent law, even if he is threatened with expulsion from the party. Mr Brady, in his own quiet way, is also against it.
Some of the coalition ideas, he suggests, may be been the result of sleep deprivation (‘There were time pressures and a lot of tired people locked in rooms for too long’). He had not heard that Mr Cameron intends to whip the vote on 55 per cent, but seems not to care. ‘This has to be left to the judgment of individual MPs,’ he says. ‘This is a significant constitutional innovation that was not in our manifesto, nor anyone else’s.’ It is a simple test: why should MPs be whipped and forced to vote for a policy not suggested at the election?
‘There’s a very significant problem in trying to create a new rule that locks in a government or a parliament. Then there are tactical concerns, the “zombie government” one of the most important. If you have genuine goodwill, if you have men of honour meeting together, then why can they not simply give a commitment that they won’t break the deal? So no, I was very concerned about this 55 per cent rule.’ He is speaking the language of rebellion, but with a gentle smile that never seems to leave his face.
But one man’s rebellion is another’s democratic duty. The last election tended to show that party political badges pulled little weight, and the independently minded MPs who had defied their party leadership tended to do better. ‘I think that may already be a trend and may well go further,’ he says. Especially under the alternative vote system which the Lib Dems are proposing — where second and third choices would be counted, thereby forcing MPs to seek cross-party appeal. ‘Having to win at least half of the votes in their own constituency would, I imagine, change the mindset of MPs quite considerably.’
Although Mr Brady places himself on the left of the Tory party, he is resolutely Eurosceptic and mindful of his manifesto pledge that no extra power should be transferred to the European Union. This raises another potential flashpoint with the coalition government. Plans to increase the number of MEPs may come to the House of Commons for a vote. ‘If an increase in the number of MEPs dilutes the debating strength of the British MEPs, that is arguably a transfer of powers.’ And one, by implications, which Tory MPs would vote against — as the Lib Dems vote for it.
Culturally, he struggles with the idea that the two parties are on the same side. ‘In the mid-1990s you could go to a Labour conference and it felt really quite like going to a Conservative conference. But I once went to a Lib Dem conference, just for a day, and it felt completely different. It just seemed strange.’ And if a Lib Dem is asked to address the Conservative party conference, he says, ‘they should think very carefully before accepting the invitation. I’m not sure what sort of a reception they’d get.’ He laughs, as if imagining the reception that Charles Kennedy would be given addressing the Tory faithful at Blackpool.
The 1922 Committee election is held at the end of this month and will probably be between Mr Brady, who turns 43 this week, and Richard Ottoway, who turns 65 next week. The race will be mostly decided by youngish MPs who were elected for the first time last week. Mr Brady says they ‘seem solidly Eurosceptic’ but he has no idea if he can rely on their vote. Many of his friends, he says, have joined the government, so cannot vote in a backbench election.
But his position is fairly clear. If we are entering an era of coalition politics, then the Prime Minister must deal with the tribes within his own ranks. ‘All political parties are coalitions of sorts,’ he says. ‘All have different strands of opinion which intertwine and separate at different points. There is a huge spectrum of opinion on almost any issue you like but there is generally something bigger which ties us together as Conservatives.’ Safeguarding those ties may well prove one of the most difficult tasks of the new politics. If so, we may be hearing much more from the likes of Mr Brady in months to come.