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by Louise Wilson
07 June 2023
Graham Brady: Parties 'on very thin ice' when respect disappears

Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Graham Brady: Parties 'on very thin ice' when respect disappears

Sir Graham Brady’s good cheer, combined with the role he plays in bringing down prime ministers, has earned him the reputation of the smiling assassin. So when I ask him what he makes of this characterisation of him – and of the 1922 Committee he leads as the ‘men in grey suits’ – he laughs and says: “I think we’re frequently misunderstood.”

“There are people who only notice the role that we have in easing leaders out and bringing new ones in. Really, the function of the 1922 Committee is as the representative body for the parliamentary Conservative Party, so people shouldn’t be surprised when we’re quite pleased if things are going well. They shouldn’t be surprised if, more often than not, rather than speaking publicly about concerns, we’d rather try to sort things out privately.

“But it is also true that if we’re there to give voice and effect to the wishes of the parliamentary party, there will be times when the wishes of the parliamentary party move to a point where we then become responsible for telling a prime minister they no longer enjoy the confidence of their colleagues in parliament.”

I particularly felt for Theresa May when it was time that she was going to have to go

Brady’s smiling face seems to rarely have been off our TV screens for the last year as his party experienced some of its toughest times. It is Brady to whom MPs submit letters of no confidence in a sitting leader; it is Brady who has had to tell prime ministers when it’s time to go; and it is Brady who has announced the result of each of the four leadership elections since 2016. But he has also been chairman of the 1922 Committee (often referred to as just The 22) since his party went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010. That means in his 13 years as chair, he’s never really had a quiet time.

He says he has “enjoyed parts of it very much”, but there were also “some quite difficult and unpleasant duties”. I ask what the most difficult bit of the job has been.

“I particularly felt for Theresa May when it was time that she was going to have to go,” he says, “because I thought she fought so hard, and she’d worked so hard, and she is somebody that I always respected for having a complete dedication to public service. I thought she was doing what she was doing for the right reasons. And it was a painful conversation to have.”

And while Brady took on the job knowing some of these tasks would fall to him, he did not think he’d have to do quite so many of them in short succession. The most unusual was the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss, who lasted just 56 days in the top job.

It felt a bit like the roadrunner cartoon, where roadrunner has run off a cliff but not yet fallen

“It was a very, very strange period. There’d been the market turmoil, there’d been the decision of the prime minister to replace the chancellor. And then, in fact, coincidentally, it happened all to come to a head on the night that was the centenary of the Carlton Club meeting [during which Tory MPs voted to collapse a coalition government and sparked the 1922 general election], and many of us were going on to a dinner at the Carlton Club to mark that centenary.”

The day played out in the news. It was Opposition Debate Day – “not normally something that would be terribly important,” Brady says – and Labour had brought forward a motion on fracking. Conservative MPs were, naturally, told to vote with the government, but then confusion emerged as to whether this was a three-line whip and thus a matter of confidence. Late in the debate, the government confirmed it was not a matter of confidence, “the opposite of what many people had been told”.

“At that point, we had the chief whip and the deputy chief whip resigning, scenes of near chaos in the division lobby, and it just felt like things were unsustainable. For those of us who went to the Carlton Club, there was a definite atmosphere. It felt a bit like the roadrunner cartoon, where roadrunner has run off a cliff but not yet fallen.”

Brady went in to see Truss the next morning (though an attempt to be discreet was foiled after a group of tourists recognised him as he was taking the back route into Downing Street). “But it was made a much easier conversation, because when I said that I thought it wasn’t retrievable, she agreed and said that she had come to the same conclusion,” he recalls.

“She then said that she was going to make an announcement. I said, having dealt with these situations before and being aware of the choreography of them, that I either need a car to bring me back here [Portcullis House] or I was happy to stay in the building until she had made the announcement.”

And so after his meeting with Truss ended, he stayed in Downing Street and watched the political rumour mill go into overdrive. “I was found an office and phone charger, and sandwiches and tea, and I was able to follow events on the television. I was amused to see this sort of steady stream of tweets from journalists saying that my meeting with the prime minister had now gone on for three hours, and we’d been joined at various points by the party chairman and the chief whip. Anybody who came in was deemed to be joining the same meeting!”

Although many Conservative MPs agreed there did need to be a new leader, no one in the party was keen for yet another drawn-out leadership contest. The 22 set about making the process shorter while still allowing for a full contest if there had been multiple contenders.

The few days following Truss’s announcement were tense, and Brady admits that he had no idea whether anyone would run against Rishi Sunak “until literally three or four minutes” before the deadline. While Boris Johnson did consider standing, and had the requisite 100 nominations to do so, he ultimately did not put his hat in the ring. When I ask if Brady had anything to do with that decision, he says no. “It was obviously very much a matter for him and his campaign team.”

But it was with some relief that Brady was able to announce Sunak was the sole nominee. “In the circumstances, I just think the danger of us looking disjointed, disorganised, would have been too great. And I think the country breathed a sigh of relief when it was all done and almost seamlessly, with barely a gap between the resignation of Liz Truss and the appointment of Rishi Sunak. Certainly for me, the experience of people stopping me in the street or tube platform, just to say, ‘it is all going to stay calm now, isn’t it?’ – I was left with little doubt that the public mood was for calm and getting on with the job.”

Part of the tragedy is that we weren’t able to move more quickly after the [EU] referendum

And it has been relatively smooth sailing for Sunak since then. There is even a feeling, albeit tentative, that the party may be able to turn its fortunes around in the 18 months to the next election. But that’s a long way off and, even as we speak, some backbench MPs are making noises about the U-turn on plans to get all EU law off UK statute books by the end of this year.

Brady, though a staunch Brexiteer, is relatively relaxed about this. “Obviously, there are colleagues who feel very, very strongly about that. In my view, I think the important thing is the direction in which we’re moving. I don’t think there’s any suggestion that the government is seeking to keep these laws in place indefinitely… And if we are to get on with our neighbouring European Union, as we must, and have a constructive and positive relationship, we need to have a working relationship. And it’s a shame that it took as many years to get there as it has.”

He blames many of the problems Brexit caused his party and the wider parliament between 2016 and 2019 on that lack of initial movement. “I’ve always thought that part of the tragedy is that we weren’t able to move more quickly after the referendum. I think if we’d been able to make arrangements in a few months for a legal separation of the United Kingdom and the European Union, then I think we probably would have got to that much more constructive relationship quite quickly.

“At the time it came as a shock to a lot of people, it came as a shock to the European Union and the big member states that we had voted to leave. I think there was a moment where people might have been prepared simply to say, right, how do we make this work? Let’s find a pragmatic solution and get on with it.

“Fundamentally, we then had a period of delay, and then the 2017 election, the loss of the Conservative majority, we got into a period where it became seen as a possibility that we wouldn’t actually leave. I think probably the biggest difficulty in the Brexit process was from those who encouraged the EU side to think this might not happen… We’re now in a place where the EU recognises that Britain has left and we’re seeing a more productive relationship on both sides.”

Pushing a single issue to the point of damaging the whole is generally not a wise thing to do

The Conservatives are not, of course, the only party to be plagued by internal fractures and factions – the SNP is now having its own difficulties. I ask whether Brady would have any advice for the SNP on that front, given his own experience, but he merely says he wouldn’t “be so presumptuous as to advise another political party on these things”.

I ask in broad terms about resolving internal party problems. “I think the essential thing is that there has to be respect within the parliamentary party. And I think that if that respect disappears, then parties are on very thin ice. In my experience within the Conservative Party, even when things have moved to an irretrievable point for a particular leader at a particular time, there’s generally been respect both for the efforts of that leader and for their supporters, and different strands of opinion within the party generally have managed to avoid personal rancour.”

I ask whether he thinks the SNP is suffering now because some members have lost respect for others – for example Joanna Cherry. “I am hesitant to delve too deeply into the internal pain of another party. It did seem that the gender recognition reform legislation, which obviously can be a very divisive issue, did seem to have been pushed without due regard to the concerns of a number of other people within the party and in the wider public.”

But broadly speaking, Brady thinks dissension is no bad thing. It’s about picking your battles. “Sometimes it’s worth making the case, sometimes it’s worth pushing a certain way. Ultimately, we all have to understand that we are a team and there’s a common enterprise that needs to succeed, so pushing a single issue to the point of damaging the whole is generally not a wise thing to do.”

Colleagues voted for me because they knew that I was prepared to stand up to David Cameron, if the need arose

That said, he does have concerns that the way politics happens in the UK means sometimes not everyone speaks up when they should – a backbencher with aspirations to higher office, for example, is less likely to go against the whip. It is for this reason he is a staunch defender of MPs being able to take on extra paid activity. He argues that having the ability means MPs aren’t tied into pursuing ministerial office as the only means to earn more. “I think being able to do other things outside parliament is a very good thing, it gives people a greater breadth of interest,” he adds.

Brady was one of the MPs involved in the recent Led By Donkeys sting, alongside former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and former health secretary Matt Hancock. But rather than being annoyed with the story – despite one minister describing the episode as “unedifying” – Brady is pleased with how he conducted himself throughout the fake interview for an advisory board position with a Korean company. He makes it clear he is unwilling to do anything that would break the rules.

But he thinks the tenor of the debate around extra work limits institutional memory, because it dissuades experienced people from sticking around. “We tend to lose former prime ministers very quickly – Theresa May being a very honourable exception. And we lose, increasingly, people who were ministers or secretaries of state. Very often, they think they’ve reached the highest point in office and they seek to leave and do something more lucrative elsewhere. I think political and public life lose out because of that.”

Brady suspects his thoughts are shaped by his own unusual parliamentary career. First elected in 1997 – at the time the youngest Conservative MP – he began climbing the party ranks for the next decade. He made it as high as shadow Europe minister until, in 2007, he quit over a row about grammar schools (he is in favour, then-leader David Cameron was against). He says it was an extremely difficult decision because he assumed that would be the end of his career within the Conservatives.

“It never occurred to me at that point that it might end up being the best thing that I ever did. My sense is that when I then stood to be chairman of the 1922 Committee in 2010, colleagues voted for me because they knew that I was prepared to stand up to David Cameron, if the need arose. And also that I would seek to do that in a responsible way which would not damage the interests of the Conservative Party.

“So I guess, unintentionally, I’d provided the evidence that I would do the job as chairman of The 22. I have no regrets at all about how things have worked out, and I think I’ve always been able to make a significant contribution to the Conservative Party and to public life.”

After an interesting few decades, he’s now hoping for a quieter few months as he winds down his parliamentary career – he’s announced his intention to stand down at the next election. When I ask about the decision, he says that after 26 years in parliament and half that time chairing The 22, “it just feels that I’ve done everything I do for a very long time”.

Is he nervous about what’s next? Brady laughs. “No, I’m not nervous. I’m quite looking forward to it. I’m going in a very positive frame of mind and I’m an optimist about the future of the party.”

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