The 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench members has been at the center of events for the past six years. This powerful committee is often hidden behind the scenes or in the political shadows. But, as we have seen, it emerges dramatically to play a more prominent part.
The committee’s origins specifically derive from the dying days of the post-war coalition government (1918-22)and the scheming activities of Conservative MPs, who impatiently sought to end their political alignment with Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
As the war faded, the coalition’s ongoing existence became more difficult to maintain, with ambitious politicians like Stanley Baldwin (a future Prime Minister), agitating from the Conservative ranks in pursuit of their own personal political ambition.
After four years of the Lloyd George coalition stumbling along, Conservative backbenchers voted in October 1922 to end its long-lasting existence in the elegant surroundings of the historic Carlton Club in central London. They created conditions for the Conservatives’ formation of a single party government, led in the first instance initially by Andrew Bonar Law.
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This reflected the Conservative party’straditional and often ruthless focus on gaining and maintaining power, and it would set a precedent for how the 1922 Committee would seek to promote the party’s best interests over individual sentiment in the years ahead.
The committee’s functional role came into full effect after the subsequent 1923 general election several months later, based on the demands of the 1922 intake of MPs ‘to facilitate cooperation within the party’.
The Conservative Party was able to govern alone or in a coalition for about two-thirds the century that followed. The 1922 Committee continued to play a significant role in major political events and remained close to the centre at Westminster.
Often referred to as the ‘men (and increasingly women) in grey suits’, in its contemporary form the 1922 Committee consists of eighteen Conservative backbench Conservative MPs, headed by an executive group of six.
The 1922 Committee’s focus on backbench MPs alone is the body’smost critical and distinctive feature. It provides it with a degree of both autonomy and control in its often challengingrelationship with the party leadership.
The only time that ministers or senior party leaders were involved in the operation of the 1922 Committee, was during World War Two. This temporary arrangement ended after the conflict.
David Cameron’s 2010 attempts to give ministers and frontbenchers greater formal influence and involvement in the 1922 Committee were fiercely opposed and eventually rejected.
The 1922 Committee is the voice of Conservative backbenchers in Westminster. Its members value and protect its various powers. History would indicate that Prime Ministers are in serious trouble if they lose this body’s support.
The 1992 Committee is responsible for all Conservative leadership election contests. Its Chairman makes public announcements of the outcome. The Chairmanship is typically reserved for an experienced backbencher, usually a Knight of this realm.
The 1922 Committee’s Chairman has often become a prominent and familiar media face in times of crisis, in particular Sir Marcus Fox during the Thatcher and Major eras of the early to mid-1990s, and Sir Graham Brady in more recent years.
All of the Conservative prime ministers in recent times have seen their support fluctuate within the 1922 Committee. The committee held a front row seat during demise of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, the John Major leadership challenge of 1995, Iain Duncan Smith’s ejection in 2003, Theresa May’s departure in 2018, and finally Boris Johnson’s more recent and somewhat reluctant exit in 2022.
Liz Truss could soon join this list, given the current unprecedented political and economic crisis.
Given the 1992 Committee’s track record, current committee members may well therefore be sharpening their metaphorical knives to facilitate further dramatic political changes over the coming weeks.