What the '22 elections mean
- 15 May 2012
- From the section UK Politics
Is the Tory leadership clamping down on the troops, or are the troops rounding on a mutinous minority?
The outcome of this week's electioneering for places on the executive of the 1922 Committee - the trade union for Tory MPs - matters because of what it will tell us about the collective attitude of the Tory footsloggers to the coalition in which they are enmeshed.
Once upon a time such internal battles were conducted with discreet decorum, well away from the public eye; now the debate is much more open. There is an organised attempt to change the personnel on the '22 executive. A slate of self-styled mainstream candidates, with organisational back-up from some heavy-duty ex-whips, is aiming to replace some of the more turbulent priests on the '22, with more collegiate types, who are less likely to pop up on national TV to denounce the government. And their supporters insist that Downing Street is not behind their activities - although it is "watching benignly".
Key targets seem to include the secretary of the '22, former minister Christopher Chope and, possibly, Bernard Jenkin, a regular critic of the government. The challenge is said to come from the 301 Group - an organisation of Tory MPs which takes its name from the number of seats needed to form a majority in the next House of Commons. The alliance behind it seems a little wider, involving senior MPs who are not natural groupies, and distain student politics terms like "slate".
There's a temptation to see all this in very simplistic terms - but it's a bit more nuanced than the Empire striking back at plucky critics…
The real divide is less, the challengers say, toadies versus trouble-makers, or loyalists against usual suspects. A lot of the 301 types defied the whips and voted for the Europe referendum, for example. It's more about fed-up mainstream MPs moving against chronic complainers who seem to delight in advertising and deepening the party's divisions, on Europe, the coalition, on the economy and social policy.
It's worth noting that the chairman of the '22, Graham Brady, who seldom gives interviews or appears on TV, was re-elected unopposed - I suspect precisely because he concentrates on his role of speaking truth to power, and telling the prime minister rather than the media, what his parliamentary troops are thinking. Also returned unopposed, are Vice-chairs Charles Walker and John Whittingdale, and Treasurer Brian Binley. But the targets of the 301 Group are not impressed by arguments about the need to play nicely. They see themselves as the true voice of a party that is muffled or even gagged by the coalition, and a leadership too distant from its grassroots.
To that mix can be added some backbenchers running explicitly because they're not members of either camp - and appealing to colleagues who dislike the sight of open campaigning and briefing against opponents by organised slates. One current exec member, Tracey Crouch, has announced she is standing down because of the "factionalism".
It's all a bit reminiscent of mid-80s student politics - and the ultimate result, which is expected to emerge at some point on Wednesday evening, could have as much to do with distaste at factional tactics as with grand questions of ideology. But it will be a worrying sign for Mr Cameron if those targeted by the 301 group emerge unscathed.
Oh and there's also a tussle for the Conservatives' four places on the Backbench Business Committee: vying for them are David Amess, Bob Blackman, Peter Bone, Jane Ellison, Philip Hollobone and Marcus Jones.
Messrs Bone and Hollobone, and Ms Ellison are sitting members of the committee. Philip Davies doesn't seem to be re-standing. Will the Tory awkward squaddies maintain their presence on BBCOM?